Q: I have one child who exhibits a lot of anxiety and
another who is very easygoing and rarely worries. How did this
happen? Will my anxious child outgrow this or do I need to find a
therapist for her?
A: It's true that children's temperaments can vary greatly, even
within the same family. Some children just seem to be born with
brains wired for anxiety. That said, adversity or trauma
experienced early in life-or even a mother's emotional state during
pregnancy-can impact her child's developing brain and propensity
Also, children, being great imitators, learn to construe an
event as scary or dangerous by watching their parents' cues. Ever
notice how differently a child reacts to falling when his parent
responds with alarm and when she doesn't?
Whatever the origin of your child's worries, I wouldn't say that
anxiety is something children simply outgrow. Many can, however,
learn to manage it. Some children discover strategies for doing
this on their own, while others may benefit from a little
Sometimes the solution is as simple as talking through a child's
concerns. You might ask her to recall another time or situation
when she felt nervous or anxious. How did she handle it? What
strategies did she use to get through it? Helping her rediscover
skills she already has for managing uncomfortable feelings can give
her lots of confidence that she'll cope well with future stressors
Teach your child some basic strategies for those times when
anxious feelings crop up or when she's feeling overwhelmed. Even
very young children can benefit from them. For starters, coach your
child to spend a minute slowly, deeply breathing a few times a day.
With a little practice, this will grow to feel less silly and reap
more immediate relaxation. She can do it anywhere: in the hot lunch
line, while sitting on the bus, before she leaves the house, or
whenever she feels nervous.
Another technique, best done when your child has the option of
quiet alone time, is for her to conjure a yawn. Yawns are
contagious, so conjuring more shouldn't be difficult. Ten in a row
can yield a state of deep relaxation.
If your child ruminates obsessively, try a little guided imagery
for 10 minutes. Tell her to sit in a relaxed position, limbs
uncrossed, feet on the floor, eyes closed. Prompt her to begin with
a little focused breathing and then gently ask her to imagine that
she is in the most relaxing place she's ever been. Give her time to
settle on one and then tell her that nothing can bother her here;
her only purpose here is to relax. Tell her that if worrisome
thoughts intrude, she can imagine putting them in a container with
a lid, where she can retrieve them when she chooses.
If winding down at bedtime is a struggle, try this technique,
which I still occasionally use with my own children:
Have your child lie down. Beginning with the feet, prompt her to
squeeze and release all of her "parts" one at a time (feet, legs,
arms, etc.) all the way to the top of her head, and then, finally,
to squeeze and release everything simultaneously. Aside from being
funny, this can induce a wonderfully restful state.
The benefits of learning to self-soothe in healthy ways are
numerous. Your child can avoid emotional eating and substance
abuse, not to mention a whole host of medical conditions. Stress
can be lethal, so teaching her to fill her "emotional toolbox" with
strategies for recognizing and coping with stress can save her a
lot of heartache later.
If your child's anxiety impairs her functioning at home or at
school in spite of your efforts (worry can literally preoccupy a
child and interfere with data processing and retention), it may be
time to enlist the support of a therapist. Untreated, persistent
anxiety can lead to panic disorder or even depression.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.
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