Three things you can do to help if your child or teenager is suffering from anxiety

Worried about your child or teenager? Here are three things you can do to help if they’re suffering from anxiety.

It can sometimes feel like we live in an age of anxiety. According to studies by the National Institute for Mental Health, almost 20% of Americans experience an anxiety disorder every year – a rate that is apparently on the rise.

And it’s not just the US that’s experiencing an anxiety epidemic. In Australia, as many as 14% of people say they’ve experienced an anxiety disorder in the past year.

In the UK, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in 2013. (In England women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders as men.)

Anxiety can have a devastating mental and personal toll. It can also impact our professional lives: the reason cited for 12.4% of all sick days in 2018 was mental health – this is equivalent to 4.4 days a year per worker.

And it’s not just adults who struggle with anxiety. Children and teenagers suffer from mental health symptoms too. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Protection, 7.1% of children in the US aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety. And in the UK, as many as 1 in 10 young people experience a mental health disorder.

What is an anxiety disorder?

So what is actually classed as ‘anxiety’? According to Mental Health UK, some of the most common anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
  • Panic disorder.
  • Social anxiety disorder.
  • Phobias.
  • Agoraphobia.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 
  • Skin-picking.
  • Hair pulling.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD).

What are the symptoms of anxiety in children?

How can you tell if your child is suffering from anxiety? According to the NHS, these are some of the symptoms to look out for in younger children:

  • They’re irritable, tearful or clingy.
  • They have trouble sleeping.
  • They wake up in the night.
  • They’re wetting their bed.
  • They’re having nightmares.

And in older children they recommend looking out for these signs of anxiety:

  • A lack of confidence to try new things or cope with simple, everyday challenges.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Problems with sleeping or eating.
  • Prone to angry outbursts.
  • Habitual negative thoughts or worries something bad will happen.
  • Avoiding everyday activities.

“Anxiety is a normal part of childhood”

If your child is currently suffering from anxiety then there are two things you need to know:

  1. It’s normal.
  2. It’s temporary and usually harmless.

Here’s what the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) say about anxiety in children:

“Anxiety is a normal part of childhood, and every child goes through phases. A phase is temporary and usually harmless. But children who suffer from an anxiety disorder experience fear, nervousness, and shyness, and they start to avoid places and activities.”

However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not important to listen to your child and get help. The ADAA emphasise the importance of getting help, noting that “untreated children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.”

Three things you need to do if your child or teenager has anxiety

So what can you do to help your child or teenager if they’re suffering from anxiety? Here are three things you can do.

1) Let them know it’s normal

As we’ve read, anxiety is a normal part of growing up for many children. So there’s no need for them (or you) to panic or worry if they experience it. Indeed, being anxious because you have anxiety is only going to make the situation worse!

So, whatever you may personally feel, or any worries you may have about your child, be calm and reassure them that their feelings are normal if they confide in you about anxiety.

Your child will look to you not just for practical guidance, but for clues as to how they should feel or respond to their problem. If you show panic or fear, they’ll experience the same.

But if you’re calm, reassuring and positive, they’ll take their cue from that too. And while that’s not going to instantly cure how they’re feeling, it will certainly help them take an important first step in the right direction.

By normalising their feelings you also help to remove any stigma or shame. You let them know there’s nothing wrong with them for feeling how they do, or experiencing any symptoms. And you give them hope that it will pass, or that they can do something about it.

If you experienced anxiety or worries at their age and overcame them, it can help helpful to share this with them too. Knowing their parent also dealt with anxiety helps, again, to normalise it, and gives them hope that this will be a passing, if difficult, phase rather than a lifetime affliction.

2) Tell them it will pass

This final point is extremely important. We learned from the ADAA that anxiety in children is a ‘temporary phase’, however it doesn’t feel that way when you’re in the midst of it.

Quite the opposite; it’s easy to panic that these new feelings will never end. You can forget what it felt like to be ‘normal’ and worry that you’ll be stuck like this forever. So it’s important to let your child know that these all-encompassing feelings of anxiety will pass.

Knowing that what they are experiencing may be horrible, but that it won’t last forever and that they will feel ‘normal’ again can help your child to better weather any symptoms. And if they’re feeling hopeful and more resilient, they may even notice the symptoms lessening a little.

3) Show them how to seek help

While anxiety may be normal and temporary, it’s still very important that you get help.

Aside from helping them to manage and even overcome their feelings, there are two important reasons why you should be proactive in helping your child tackle their anxiety – even if it’s just researching practical strategies to manage it.

The first reason is that it reinforces the idea that anxiety isn’t a permanent state. It’s not something that has just happened to them and that they’re stuck with.

Looking for help tells your child or teen that you believe that help exists. That they can do something about it. That they won’t always be this way. And that they should expect to feel better.

The second reason is a broader life lesson: how you approach their worries about anxiety will lay a template for how they approach any problem they encounter in the future.

By proactively reaching out for solutions you teach them not to give up, or to simply accept less than they want or deserve. Instead, you show them they can strive for more, and that they can be empowered in looking after their needs.

What CAN you do to help your child?

So what, practically, can you do to help your child or teenager if they’re experiencing anxiety? Here’s what the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) recommends.

Listen to your child

If your child or teenager confides in you about their worries, listen with care and respect. Never dismiss any feelings – however exaggerated or dramatic they may seem to you, they’re very real to them. Instead, as we recommend above, help to normalise them.

Reassure them

Reassure them that it’s quite normal to worry about your looks and body, your performance, friendships, personality, future… pretty much everything in fact! Few of us reach adulthood without worrying about how normal we are or feel rejected or unworthy at some point.

Trace the source of their anxiety

It can help your child or teenager to trace their anxiety to specific situations and experiences to reduce the sense of overwhelm, and stopping them globalising their emotions. For example, by assuming that ‘everyone hates them’ or they ‘always fail’. You may even be able to eliminate the source of their anxiety.

Give them hope

You can also reassure them that while these feelings are very real now to them, as they get older they’ll be able to handle them better, and develop techniques to deal with stress and worries more effectively.

Remind them of worries they’ve overcome

To help them start to learn some of these techniques, you can remind them of other times they have faced problems or worries and overcome them. And identify any personal traits you have observed in them they can use to cope now.

Praise positive characteristics

Draw their attention to strengths and positive characteristics they may be overlooking, and look for any opportunity to genuinely praise them. Encourage attributes, qualities and behaviours you’d like to see more of by highlighting and complimenting them.

Don’t worry if they don’t seem to listen

Don’t worry if your child or teenager doesn’t appear to be listening or even rejects your advice. You’ll be surprised at how much does go in, and will be used later. And at the very least, showing that you care and are trying to help will reassure your child that they are loved and that you are optimistic of a positive outcome.

How to use a simple breathing technique to stop panic attacks

If your child or teenager is experiencing a panic attack, there’s a simple breathing technique you can teach them to control and even stop it (and stop future attacks before they become full-blown).

The name of this is the 7-11 breathing technique. I was taught it during my psychotherapist and hypnotherapist training, and used it to stop my own panic attacks.

It’s very easy to master, which is perfect for children. All they need to do is:

  • Breathe in slowly for the count of 7.
  • Exhale slowly for the count of 11.

If your child is young and struggles with the length of breath you can reduce the numbers (for example, 5 and 8). The important thing is to ensure they are breathing out for longer than they are breathing in.

Here’s why this technique works. When you hyperventilate during a panic attack, your body doesn’t retain enough carbon dioxide, so it cannot use the oxygen it has. This can make you feel like you can’t breathe.

The 7-11 breathing technique gives your body chance to get more carbon dioxide, so it can use the oxygen. Importantly, it also moves your focus away from whatever worry or thought had triggered the panic attack, and instead makes you focus on counting your breathing.

You can teach this technique to your child at any time, and encourage them to practice it so it feels familiar to them. It’s a comforting tool to have handy – one they can use to calm themselves down any time they’re feeling nervous. It can be helpful to manage low-level daily anxiety as well as stopping panic attacks.

When to seek professional help for your child or teenager

At what point should you seek professional help for your child or teenager? Here’s what a GP recommended to us generally for stress and depression:

  • You feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to turn.
  • You have physical symptoms that you are worried might be from a serious cause.
  • You feel anxious or are having panic attacks.
  • You’ve tried to solve the feeling yourself but aren’t making any progress.
  • Your black mood is lasting weeks and will not lift despite your best efforts.
  • You don’t want to see anyone and are avoiding social contact.
  • You’ve lost your motivation or feel hopeless.
  • You can’t concentrate on tasks you would normally find easy.
  • You’ve thought that your family would be better off without you or considered harming yourself.
  • Your sleep pattern is severely disrupted.

If you observe these in your child and are concerned, then you can make an appointment with your doctor to discuss it and see what help is available.

The AACAP recommends seeking professional advice if fearfulness begins to take over your child’s life and limit their activities, or their anxiety lasts for more than six months.

If their worries are school-related it’s worth speaking to the school. Your child’s teacher may have observed problems too, and could have solutions to suggest. They’ll also be able to keep an eye on your child. Some schools also have counsellors or wellbeing therapists your child can speak to.

If your child or teenager is self-harming, talks about suicide or is trying to self-medicate through alcohol or drug use, or is seriously depressed, it’s important to seek help straight away.

If you’re worried about drug or alcohol abuse, you can read advice from FRANK here. The Change, Grow, Live programme also comes highly recommended.

What I’ve learned from my experience with anxiety as a child

Much of the advice I shared above comes from my own personal experience with anxiety as a child and young adult (and as a mother of a child and a teenager).

I too struggled with anxiety throughout much of my childhood and teens. I was a born worrier – I lay awake at night plotting escape routes out of the house for virtually any disaster from the age of eight!

But as I got older that worry start to manifest itself physically. It started with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and progressed into full blown panic attacks and nausea and vomiting.

There was much less knowledge about anxiety at the time, and my family didn’t understand what I was experiencing nor knew how to handle it, so they made fun of my strange OCD habits (not maliciously; they just didn’t know what they were caused by). But as the anxiety progressed they went from amusement to worry.

Our family doctor didn’t recognise what was clearly social anxiety, and instead incorrectly diagnosed bulimia and insisted I was weighed at the surgery every two weeks.

When our GP finally accepted I didn’t have an eating disorder I was sent to a psychologist, who concluded I had ‘mother issues’. Again, wildly wrong!

Everyone was busy looking for a complicated explanation for my physical symptoms, when in fact it was simple: I was a shy, introverted and empathetic girl with poor social skills and, I now realise, ADHD, who was growing up, and was terrified and lost.

Today, I would probably have been diagnosed with anxiety in the first consultation with a doctor. But, as difficult as my experience was, I’m glad I wasn’t. Because if I had, I may have assumed I was stuck with anxiety. I would have had a limiting label, and I may have curbed my life choices to factor this ‘disability’ in.

I overcame my own anxiety

As it is, I went out into the world with no diagnosis, no medication and no help. And I survived. I forced myself to confront my nerves: buying a one-way ticket to Hong Kong with no job, home or friends waiting for me was one extreme anxiety-defeating tactic!

I also never gave into fear. I went to parties and I spoke to strangers. I made friends and I embraced every experience that came my way. I never said “no” to something I wanted because it made me nervous, such as traveling the world solo. I just faced my fears and did it anyway.

And you know what? Over time, those fears abated. I grew up, and I never let them win. I learned how to control and then stop my panic attacks (I used the 7-11 breathing technique I described above to stop them). And today I don’t suffer from anxiety at all. Quite the opposite in fact – I’m one of the least anxious people I know!

I don’t think I would have been able to achieve that had I accepted a label, or let anxiety control, limit or define me. Or believed that anxiety was a permanent, unchangeable state.

I also have brilliant role models in my parents, who proactively seek help whenever they need it, and have doggedly found creative solutions to every problem life has thrown at them.

Why I believe we can all choose how we think and feel

My own experience has made me passionately believe that much of our mental state – our thoughts and feelings – is very much within our control if we wish. If there is a feeling you experience, or something about your character you don’t like or doesn’t serve you, you don’t need to be stuck with it.

Change isn’t easy or quick, but neither is it impossible. (I explain exactly how I changed my own personality traits and feelings, and you can too, in our Confidence Masterclass.)

This is something that I tell my children too. I want them to realise that yes, sometimes life is hard. Sometimes life is unfair, and sometimes you can find situations and feelings insurmountable.

But situations do pass, and you can change how you think and feel. Just because something happens to you doesn’t mean you’re stuck with feelings or behaviours you don’t want as a consequence. I want my children to feel empowered and take personal responsibility for their feelings and their life.

Help your child avoid being one of the 20%

It makes me sad to know that as many as 20% of adults are living with anxiety. And I hope that, by guiding our children through the very normal bouts of anxiety when they’re young, we can teach them coping mechanisms that will help them weather the inevitable storms of life better.

And who knows? By helping your child or teenager navigate feelings of anxiety now, you may prevent them from experiencing it in future.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon