Just like adults, children can experience stress and anxiety. As much as we try to protect and shelter them, technology makes news and information so easily available that it’s almost impossible to prevent children from seeing and hearing about scary or sad things going on the world. Some anxiety is normal, like if they’re anticipating an upcoming event or vacation, but anxiety becomes a problem when they don’t know how to process the feelings and it leads to excessive worry. When children are too scared to talk about their worries, the effects of it can still be seen. Some will internalize their worry and you’ll notice a change in their sleep or eating habits, not wanting to go to school, or isolating themselves. Others will exhibit external symptoms like aggression, impulsive risk-taking, becoming loud and defiant, or acting differently around their peers.
Many times, children will open up about their worries once you get the conversation started, which is why it’s important to pay attention for changes in behavior and take the time to check in with them consistently. If you notice they are watching something on the news or that they seem worried about a subject, try talking to them about it and what they think. That’s because sometimes all they need is reassurance or a reality check to help them process things. For small children, bedtime can be natural opening to talk with them about their day while you tuck them in. As you talk to them, you want to reassure them but it’s important to be honest with them. False promises that everything will be okay may reassure them momentarily, but not in the long run.
When a child’s anxiety becomes debilitating and begins interfering with everyday activities, parents should seek advice and evaluation from their child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional. They can help determine how serious the anxiety is and give you calming and relaxation exercises to use at home. If parents or children have concerns about seeing a mental health professional, just think of it as an emotional checkup, not unlike the physical checkups children normally get. The more support a child has, the easier it is to help them with their anxiety. Therefore, parents are encouraged to discuss how their child is doing with their teachers and any other caregivers.
Dr. Kim Hoover is a psychiatrist that is board certified in child and adolescent psychiatry with Cone Health Outpatient Behavioral Health at Kernersville and a member of Cone Health Medical Group. Dr. Hoover completed medical school at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine
She completed her residency in psychiatry at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and her fellowship in child/adolescent psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center.