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 for anxiety.
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 coaching.
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 and worries.
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.