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Coping with Anxious Kids

Posted 3/15/2017 by UHBlog

Like adults, some kids are worriers. Talk to us about what is normal worrying for a child or when it's gone too far.

Coping with Anxious Kids

Small fears and worries are normal for kids and teens. But when worry morphs into distress so that everyday life is difficult or your child acts out, anxiety may be controlling parts of their life. In fact, about one in 12 kids and teens may develop an anxiety issue, making it the most common mental health disorder of childhood, says child and adolescent psychiatrist Stephanie Pope, MD.

Dr. Pope lists guidelines to deal with three of the most common anxiety disorders affecting kids and teens, including:

  1. Separation anxiety. From age 6 months to 2 years, separation anxiety is part of normal development. For instance, your toddler may ask to sleep in your bed or may become distressed when left with another caregiver – particularly if they’re tired, hungry or not feeling well.

    Be wary of these red flags:

    • Intense distress when separated from an important caregiver, usually a parent
    • When separated, the child may focus on seeing the parent again or worry that something has happened to them

    To minimize this, Dr. Pope suggests that you keep goodbyes brief, upbeat and matter-of-fact.

    “Create a ritual your child can depend on,” she says. “Say when you’ll be back and keep your promise. To prevent relapses during holidays and vacations, plan short separations. For example, leave your child with a trusted caregiver for an hour or two while you have coffee with a friend.”

  2. Generalized anxiety disorder. Fears about things like monsters, spiders and the dark are normal in young children. Performance worries, such as nerves about giving a presentation at school, are more common in older kids.

    The red flags include excessive worry, fear and dread about grades, friendships, family matters and/or doing well in activities, such as sports.

    To help your child adjust, make sure your child sticks with a healthy sleep schedule, eats nutritious meals and gets physical activity. Practice a tension-taming activity your child can use when anxiety rises, such as calm breathing.

  3. Social anxiety. A little shyness in a new situation is normal for most kids. Social anxiety is more common in teens, but it can begin earlier in life.

    Be watchful of these red flags:

    • Extreme worry before social events
    • Throwing tantrums or complaining of physical symptoms, like stomachaches, to avoid going to school or other activities

    According to Dr. Pope, there are ways you can help your child deal with social anxiety.

    “Understand that behind your child’s behavior are big fears about doing or saying the wrong thing in front of others, especially friends and classmates,” she says. “Be understanding, but firm – don’t allow your child to skip important activities like school due to social anxiety.”

If the anxiety, worry or fear continues, more help may be needed.

“Talk with your child’s pediatrician if your child is restless, irritable or has trouble sleeping or concentrating as a result of anxiety,” Dr. Pope says. “For symptoms that persist beyond a few months, your pediatrician may recommend seeing a mental health specialist, such as a child psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor.”

Stephanie Pope, MD is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Pope or any other doctor online.

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