Reflections: A Glimpse into Childhood Anxiety and Strategies to Help

There is great beauty in going through life without anxiety or fear.  Half of our fears are baseless. And the other half discreditable.” – Christian Nestell Bovee

I am no stranger to worry.  Butterflies swarm around the pit of my stomach most of the time. As a chchild anxietyild, anxiety consumed most of my waking hours and many of my sleepless nights.  On the outside, I seemed to be perfectly fine.  Most people thought I was just shy or reserved. I was a good student. I had friends.  I was helpful at home.  But on the inside, I was in constant turmoil.  I was terrified to make a mistake and suffer the ridicule that I was certain would follow.  I cried everyday on the way to school. My mind raced day and night, searching for the next warning signal, reflecting on the day, or worrying about tomorrow.  My teen years were not much better.  My quest for perfection was a full time job.

By the time I was in my twenties I was tired of being controlled by my thoughts. In college, I majored in Psychology and learned cognitive and behavioral strategies to manage my worried mind. And then I found yoga and learned how to find peace amidst my racing thoughts.  I learned how to make mistakes (and that they weren’t going to kill me).  I let go of perfection and embraced being me (flaws and all). I learned to channel my energy into my passions and, over time, my anxieties and worries diminished. And then I had children.

Now, as a mother, I suffer with anxiety again.  Only this time it is worse. It is worse because I cannot control it and I cannot take it away.  It is worse because I have to watch my five-year-old daughter battling the same demons it took me so long to face.  Looking at my daughter is like looking at my “childhood” self in the mirror. Every morning before school she frets. “Will my friends be on the bus?” “Will we have a test today?” “Who will I sit with at lunch?” The idea of going to a friend’s house to play can send her into a full-blown meltdown.   And every week before gymnastics class she wishes that she never signed up and begs to stay home.  By the time class is over, however, she is beaming because she had so much fun.

As a parent, there is nothing worse than watching your child suffer.  I want to protect her and shield her from the world.  But, having experienced the same anxieties, I know that the fear will not dissolve with time, or by avoidance.  Thankfully, I have found some strategies to help her (and me) overcome the worried thoughts.

Ways to Help

  1. Give  Yoga a Try– Yoga has been one of the best tools for me in conquering anxiety.  When I found yoga, exercise shifted from something I had to perfect into an activity that      nourished my body and mind.  For children (and adults) an important part of managing anxiety is “getting   your body on board” (Chansky, 2004). Learning to refocus energy, relaxing our bodies, and breathing deeply are all components of both behavioral      therapies for anxiety and yoga class. The best time to practice these strategies is while you are having fun and in a non-competitive,  supportive environment.  Yoga classes designed for children can be a wonderful way to practice these coping skills while having fun.
  2. Manage your own anxiety–  Children of  anxious parents are 7 times more likely to develop anxiety related issues.  (Ginsberg, 2002). I know,  for me, self-care is the most important part of helping my child with her anxiety. Regular exercise and daily yoga practice helps me to stay calm      and focused. Find what helps you and do it regularly.
  3. Empathize with what your child is feeling (Chansky, 2004). As adults, it is easy to dismiss children’s anxiety as “small” worries.  Often we try to distract our children from the source of their anxiety. Acknowledging her feelings and facing the fear head on seems to work best for my daughter.
  4. Reward Coping Behavior (Ginsberg, 2002) – As parents we want to protect our children (especially if we are anxious ourselves), but being      overprotective actually exacerbates the problem for worried children.  If they sense that you are worried, it reinforces the idea that their fear is real (why else would their parent be worried).  Instead, give your child some space.  Let them know that you trust their ability and their competence.  And then reward their effort at trying new things.
  5. Consult a medical professional.  Anxiety is the most treatable psychiatric condition.  Most treatment involves some form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and/or medication.  Early detection and treatment is best.  Most adults that suffer with anxiety say that their symptoms began as a child (Ginsberg, 2002).

For more information on childhood anxiety:

Chansky, Tamar E., Freeing Your Child From Anxiety: Powerful, Practical Solutions to Overcome Your Child’s Fears, Worries, and Phobias. New York, 2004.

J.T. Walkup and G.S Ginsberg, “Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents,” International Review of Psychiatry 14 (2002): 85-86.