Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Helping My Anxious Child

***Any advice and tips in this article are of my own opinions. If you think your child is experiencing anxiety, please seek treatment from a medical professional or licensed therapist ***

Helping My Anxious Child
Our journey with Childhood Anxiety 

Our story:
I knew my child was different in a beautiful way for as long as I can remember. I would watch him in social situations and he would tend to be very awkward. He would always drift towards older kids and adults, they were his safe place. Despite the social awkwardness, kids always loved him and wanted to be his friend. Four years later, things haven’t changed much. He is still very awkward in social situations, not really knowing what to say or do. Despite the daily struggles of what I now know is anxiety, he manages to build friendships wherever he goes. 

Red Flags 🚩 
My son exhibited so many symptoms of anxiety for as long as I can remember. The symptoms really started catching my eye at the end of his Kindergarten year when he started frequently urinating. He would run to the bathroom easily 30-40x daily and complain that nothing would come out. Then the headaches started to present themselves. I decided to make an appointment with our pediatrician to get a handle on these symptoms as I thought he was suffering from chronic migraines (family history). She decided it was best to have a head CT to rule out any tumors that might be causing his severe and frequent headaches. After the scans came back clear, we moved forward with medicating for the headaches. 

Things suddenly changed the beginning of his first grade year. He had always been a stellar student. No behavior problems, straight A’s, top of his class. Then September rolled around and it was like someone flipped a switch in my child. That’s the only way I can truly explain it. I was blindsided. My once sweet child was now very defiant and having intense anger outbursts and meltdowns. I knew something had to give when he kicked a teacher in the leg one day because he didn’t get his way. This was NOT my child. Not the one I was raising. 

At this time in life, we were going through a lot. His father and I had divorced the previous year and my 17 year old cousin died by suicide. I knew my son was angry. He had every right to be. He felt like he lost his dad and then he lost one of his very best friends (cousin) by something no child his age can or should imagine. This is when I stepped in and sought help from a licensed therapist. I knew I could no longer do this on my own. It took us two therapists before I really found one I felt connected with my son and saw beyond his anger instead of just medicating him and calling it a day. With this new therapist, his diagnosis was quickly changed from ADHD to generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, and social anxiety. We spent this past year working with him, attempting to get him to recognize his anxiety and develop positive coping skills. Due to his age and maturity level, his therapist and I agreed that medication was the best thing for him at this point in his life. It’s been a game changer, y’all! 🙌🏼

The last four years, I’ve had to learn to navigate anxiety with my child. I’ve learned what works for him, what doesn’t, triggers, and what his anxiety presents as. Due to our journey with childhood anxiety, I wanted to share my insight on anxiety, it’s symptoms and how to we manage our child’s anxiety. 

What does anxiety look like?
The key to managing your child’s anxiety is recognizing your child’s symptoms, even before they realize what’s going on. Looking back now, I saw so many red flags with my child but it never crossed my mind that MY child might be battling anxiety. Honestly, I thought he had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) because anxiety can often mimicked ADHD and ODD. I now know better and because of this, I can take active steps at home to help my child. 

Below is a list of some (not all) signs of anxiety:
Refusal to go to school
Difficulties with transitions 
High expectations in school, sports, etc.
Excessive worrying
Disruptive behaviors 
Difficulty participating in class
Difficulty interacting with peers
Fear of being judged
Worries excessively about being separated from home or primary caregiver. 
Strong startle responses 
Picking at skin
Nail biting
Frequent urination/constipation   
Frequent trips to the nurse (complaints of stomachaches, headaches, nausea, and/or vomiting)
Excessive worry over making a mistake

  • If your child is exhibiting any of the above symptoms, please contact your child’s doctor to have a full mental health and physical health assessment done to rule out other disorders. Some physical conditions can mimic anxiety symptoms so your doctor will want to rule out these conditions as well. 

What I learned about helping my child manage and cope with anxiety:

Anxious children need to understand their body cues and triggers.
It’s really important that you and your child learn to recognize when your child begins to feel anxious. By recognizing and taking proactive steps, you could potentially stop major meltdowns and tantrums from happening. Talk with your child about recognizing body cues. Explain that body cues are signs your body gives to let you something isn’t quite right. Have your child tell you what happens to their body when they begin to feel anxious (rapid heartbeat, headache,stomachache,etc.). If you notice your child complaining of these symptoms or see symptoms begin to happen (sweating, shaking, upset stomach), implement their coping strategies (see below). I also suggest you take notes after your child has had a meltdown or anxiety attack. Write down what happened leading up to the episode, what occurred during the episode, and what worked/didn’t work after the episode. By noting these events, it will help you identify potential triggers for your child’s anxiety and help you avoid and/or navigate the situation when it occurs again. By doing this, you can also start identifying coping skills that will help your child. Also, having documentation helps a medical professional and/or therapist assess the situation. 

Below is a visual chart to help your child recognize their body cues:

Don’t rush an anxious child
Setting timers or making an anxious child feel rushed can trigger symptoms fast. Often anxious children tend to be “perfectionist” and set extremely high standards for themselves. Feeling rushed could cause them to feel like they didn’t do their best and/or make them feel like a failure. 

At school: If your child is diagnosed with anxiety, his/her therapist will help guide you through working with your child’s school. Most schools have a behavior or special education team that can accommodate your child during testing and assignments (no timers, small groups, etc). 

At home: If your family is often in a rush like ours, have your anxious child help plan for the next day ahead of time. Have clothes laid out the night before, know what you’ll have for breakfast the next morning, and discuss the next day’s schedule (sports schedules, meetings, etc). Help them feel well prepared for their upcoming day. This will help set them up for success and feel less rushed and overwhelmed. 

Provide Smooth Transitions and Consistency
Anxious children often struggle with the unknown. They have a fear of what’s coming next and if something is out of routine, it can trigger their anxiety. Providing smooth transitions and consistency can be the difference between a good day and a bad day. 

At school: Have the school create (or you could provide one) a routine chart for your child. With my son, we provided a chart with academic subjects and corresponding times. He always knew what came next by looking at his chart (he no longer needs this 🙌🏼). If your child’s teacher knows he or she will be not be present at school one day, have the teacher let you know. You and the teacher can prepare your child for a disruption in routine by informing them the day before (preferably days ahead but that’s not always possible). 

Example: “Mac, your teacher will be out Friday. You will have a substitute.” 

My son’s teacher is great about letting me know and every day leading up to the teacher’s absence, I remind him. Giving your child this “heads up” eliminates the surprise element of someone new teaching the class for the day. I know this can’t always be the case as teachers don’t know when they will be sick or need to leave mid-day but any time you can prepare your child for a change ahead of time helps. It also helps to make sure your child’s school has a “safe person” they trust in place to help with the sudden shift in routine if it’s needed. 

At home: Transitions and consistency are just as important at home as they are at school. The way I help my son manage transitions at home is by providing a family calendar that we mounted on the wall. At the beginning of the month, I write all our appointments, extra curricular activities, and school events on the calendar. It is placed in the kitchen so he sees it daily and has easy access if he wants to know what is going on for the week.  Here’s a link for a great (affordable) magnetic fridge calendar https://amzn.to/2JWPk3F

My husband (his amazing stepdad) and I sat down to create an after school routine. It doesn’t always work because of after school activities BUT it provides routine and consistency on our free days. This has drastically helped with the defiant behaviors and meltdowns caused by his anxiety. Here’s an example of our after school routine:
Snack time/Outside play time (weather permitted)
Electronic time/Dinner
Downtime (watch TV, play a game, etc)
Prep for bedtime 

Validate their feelings
Anxiety can present in many ways. For my child, his anxiety comes in the form of severe anger outbursts. By this point in our journey, I’m able to identify why he might feel anxious. When you validate a child’s feelings, you’re able to help your child see that their emotions are very real. By letting them know that everyone feels this way sometimes, it can help them feel less overwhelmed, alone, and anxious. When you say “you have nothing to worry about” or “don’t be afraid”, it contradicts what the child is feeling and could make them feel like something is wrong with them. Let them know you understand why they feel the way they do and that you’re there to help them. 

Have coping tools/strategies readily available 

It’s really important that children have safe ways to express themselves when they feel anxious. I suggest having a “coping box” or some sort of “safe zone”. 

Coping box: Get a small plastic container from your local store and have it placed in a spot that your child has easy access to. Your coping box should include items to help your child calm down. Some suggested items are: stress balls, putty, finger fidgets, calm down bottle, journal, pin wheel, etc. The items you choose for your child need to be age appropriate. 

(To see some of my favorite coping tools, refer to my Favorite Fidgets Guide at www.villageandvineyard.com).

Safe Zone: This is what we chose for my son as it works best for him. We purchased a loft bed and placed sensory items underneath the loft. He has a fuzzy rug, lots of pillows, and stuffed animals. He knows that he can squeeze and/or throw stuffed animals and pillows if he needs to. Prior to implementing this, we discussed how to stay safe in his safe zone and what is and isn’t allowed to be thrown. We also removed anything breakable like the TV and lamps. Other safe zone ideas include a special corner (not a time-out!) or area of the house that is free of dangers. Anxious children tend to feel very embarrassed and want to “hide” when overwhelmed. Make sure this space is “hidden” within your sight (if that makes sense?!). 

Give them space
Sometimes, an anxious child just needs space to feel their feelings. Like previously mentioned, anxious children tend to be easily embarrassed, causing behaviors to escalate. As long as your child is not a danger to themselves or others, let them feel every emotion in the moment. You can go back later and debrief with them after they have calmed down. 

——————— In Conclusion ——————-

I know this was a lot to take in. However, if just one small portion of this can help you or your child, our journey has been worth it. Parenting an anxious child is not easy but you are not in this alone. Please reach out to family or friends to help you cope with the stresses of it all. Please also seek the help of professionals who can help you navigate this journey you and your child are on. You can’t do this alone and they are the perfect people to answer any questions you may have. 


  1. You have all my admiration for the way you handled things with your son. And thank you for sharing this. Even though my boy is too young to see anxiety signs, some of the advice here works for tantrums as well and let's not forget that routine is good for all young children

    1. Absolutely!! I’ve even started a routine with our 14 week old. Even a tiny baby desperately needs one!