Advice for parents: Understanding anxiety in your child

Advice for parents: Understanding anxiety in your child

Being a tween in today’s world isn’t always easy, and many children and tweens, and their parents, are dealing with anxiety. Parents may not know what is going on, or may not know how to help the child despite a desperate desire to do so. Here to arm with parents more information and to give parents tools to help their children are guest posters Abbie Kelley, MA, LCPC and Julianne Neely, MSW, LSW. They are licensed therapists specializing in child, adolescent, and family counseling at Individual and Family Connection.


Children, including tweens, experience anxiety in a much different way than adults. This can make childhood anxiety difficult for parents to detect and understand.

When children are experiencing overwhelming anxiety, it is a whole body experience. This is very real and can be extremely scary for the person experiencing symptoms.  If parents are able to recognize the symptoms of chronic anxiety in kids early on, they can step in to provide positive coping tools to better manage these overwhelming feelings of anxiety and worry.

What should you look for?

Children struggling with anxiety often does not have the words to describe their intense feelings. As a result, their feelings will often manifest as disruptive behaviors, ongoing physical symptoms or behavioral changes.  In some instances the behavioral changes slowly develop over time, whereas in other situations there are marked behavioral changes.  When trying to determine if your child is struggling with anxiety, trust your instincts by listening to and watching your child.

Some symptoms include:

  • Negative self-talk: Such as “I’m so stupid” or “I can’t do anything right!”
  • Difficulty expressing themselves: If your child is unable to find words to describe their feelings, they may attempt to express themselves through disruptive behavior (such as hitting, tantruming, etc.).
  • Uncontrollable fears: You may find that your child’s fears prevent them from enjoying activities. For example, they may refuse to go on family walks due to their uncontrollable fear of dogs.
  • Feeling uneasy: They may appear distracted or unsettled during seemingly normal activities.
  • Physical symptoms such as stomach problems, headaches, or body aches.
  • Restlessness: Your child may tap or shake their legs or hands, bite their nails, pick at their hands, etc.
  • Excessive worry: Your child might worry about death, the house burning down, their sibling’s or parent’s safety, whether or not they will wake up in the morning or other unlikely events.
  • Difficulty concentrating: Your child may have difficulty focusing on schoolwork because they are distracted by their worries; we find that to be especially true for children with social anxiety.
  • Perfectionism: Your tween may put undue pressure on him/herself to have perfect handwriting, assignments, or attire.
  • Unforgiving of self for making mistakes: Because of the pressure they may place on themselves to be perfect, your child may obsess over his mistakes.
  • Difficulty acting spontaneously: Many children who suffer from anxiety find great comfort in their routine and may have difficulty deviating from that regular routine.

If I am seeing some of these symptoms in my own child, what can I do to help?

What NOT to do

As a parent, you naturally want to step in and tell your child, “Don’t worry.” However, this reaction can isolate your child and make them feel they cannot share their feelings with you. Unfortunately, if they could stop feeling anxious, they would! Children who are frequently told to simply stop feeling anxious can end up feeling abnormal.

Ideas to try

Listen, listen, listen: Rather than responding with “don’t worry,” ask your child what they are feeling and listen. The feelings are the effect; listen until you hear the cause.  Be present with your tween and hear their perspective before you offer your own.  Often parents, with the best of intentions, try to come up with solutions because they do not want to see their child hurting.  However, in doing so sometimes parents forget that the act of listening and validating their tween’s experiences is a very healing experience in itself.  As difficult as it may be, listen and be present with your child. Specific solutions will come later.

Set up a worry time: If your child worries about many things throughout the day, set up a worry time. For example, set aside 15 minutes when your child can freely talk about their worries. They can also write their worries down on paper to share with a trusted adult. If your child starts to worry at another time, redirect them by saying, “I am sorry you feel that way, let’s save that thought for our worry time.” Then try to engage your child in another activity they enjoy as a means of temporarily districting them from their worries. This is a great way to teach them how to stop their repetitive anxious thoughts in their tracks without dismissing their feelings.

Create a worry box: Have your child imagine a box with a lock. Explain that this is a worry box. If they start to worry, they can imagine opening the box, putting the worry in the box, slamming the lid closed and locking the worry there. Or you can create a REAL worry box and encourage your child to write the worry on a piece of paper and put it in the box. This technique is especially helpful at bedtime when worries get more intense and can keep your child awake at night.

Put the worry outside of the child: It is helpful to separate your child from the worry. This way, you externalize the problem and are united in the fight against anxiety. Have them picture the worry as a creature or a thing. Encourage them to imagine the image and then draw a picture. (Is it furry with claws, a dark cloud or just a blob?). When worrying starts to take over, your child can visualize that creature and can do something about it by talking back and standing up to it. Work with your child and write down things to say to best combat the worry monster and prevent it from taking over such as, “I don’t believe you!” “Get away!”

Do something else: Engaging in an alternative activity is key in keeping away worries. Our bodies and minds are such that we cannot be relaxed and worried at the same time. If they are playing a game or riding a bike, there is less room for worry to bother the child.

Help them make a list of things to do: Help your child understand that being active will help prevent those feelings from taking over. As tweens begin to realize that there are things they can do to help prevent worries from taking over, they will gain confidence in their abilities to combat these emotions and once again be able to play and do fun things without having these emotions take over. Here are some ideas:

  • Take three deep breaths
  • Run up and down the stairs five times
  • Read
  • Draw
  • Play music
  • Do yoga or stretch
  • Play a game
  • Take a pet for a walk

These strategies take practice and time. Give your child positive messages and tell them that you believe in them. If you believe your child needs additional support, contact a licensed counselor at IFC.

Abbie Kelley, MA, LCPC and Julianne Neely, MSW, LSW are licensed therapists specializing in child, adolescent, and family counseling. They share a private practice, Individual and Family Connection, where they treat children dealing with behavior problems, anxiety, low self-esteem, ADHD/ADD, and more. Abbie and Julianne are interactive, solution-based therapists who utilize a variety of techniques to help clients effectively address personal life challenges. They understand that every person and family goes through periods where extra support is needed and they consider it a privilege to step into others’ struggles and challenges in order to offer a listening ear and a helping hand. For more information visit:

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