Anxiety and stress. We are living in an era in which these feelings seem to rule our existence. Many of us deal with anxiety in our normal everyday lives, but with the addition of social distancing and isolation, these emotions are more pronounced than ever.
Adults are not the only ones affected by stress and anxiety. Our children and teens are dealing with new and unsettling emotions as well. Adolescent children and teens in particular often exhibit different outward signs of stress than we would expect; they tend to be more affected than other ages due to increased responsibility, puberty and social stressors. Emotions can range from anger and aggression to withdrawal and moodiness.
We all deal with stress differently, and we also allow stress and anxiety to affect our lives in different ways. Just as we are teaching our children via school and in life skills, it is important to teach them how to recognize and manage stress and anxiety. We also need to talk to them about both healthy and unhealthy ways to manage our worries. Follow these steps to open those doors of conversation with your children:
- The initial step is to help children recognize when they are feeling anxious or stressed. Parents can help bring this to their child’s attention when they notice something is worrying them. Address these feelings with your child in a calm manner and avoid confronting them when they are at the peak of stress or emotion.
- Affirm these feelings in your child. Give them a name. Reassure them that feeling mad and frustrated or scared and worried is OK. Refrain from belittling your child’s stress or anxiety. The last thing we as parents want to do is make our child feel shame for how they feel. Let them know that we are all allowed to feel whatever feelings come to us even if we aren’t always allowed to act on those feelings.
- The next step is to work on a list of triggers, or things that seem to bring about stress or anxiety most often. These are very different for each child. Some may be overwhelmed with large amounts of school work and home responsibilities while others may react more strongly toward social or world events. Communication is key here as is helping children learn to develop self-introspection.
- The final, and seemingly most difficult thing, can be finding ways to mitigate this stress. These could include exercise, reading, journaling, listening to music, counting, deep breathing exercises or meditation. Helping your child find the activity that centers them and relaxes them is the key (and a great practice for parents, too!)
- While these coping strategies can help in many situations, knowing when to seek professional help and guidance is vital. If your child is canceling typical activities with friends, has lost interest in activities that used to excite them or becoming aggressive toward others, or you have concern that they are a danger to themselves or others, it is time to see your child’s doctor, psychologist and/or psychiatrist. Calling or making an appointment with your child’s pediatrician is a great first step toward finding the kind of professional help that will be most beneficial for your child’s situation.
Anxiety and stress do not often go away throughout our lives; rather they change and evolve over time. Things that seemed stressful at 13 years of age may seem silly at 40 years old, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t challenging to the person who is affected. The goal for every parent is to help guide our children to become independent and successful adults. Self awareness and behavioral health is an important milestone in this journey.
All kids who experience anxiety have varied symptoms and reactions. But to give us some insight into what anxiety feels like to a child, we asked 8-year-old Addie to describe it for us.
What does anxiety feel like …
- I think I worry way more than other people do.
- I worry a lot about something bad happening to my family or me.
- Anxiety is like a voice in my head telling me scary things or telling me I’m not good enough.
- I have a hard time sleeping because I stay up worrying.
- Sometimes I get really mad or frustrated that I worry so much.
What helps you feel better …
- When I can’t sleep, reading a book or listening to a calming app helps me relax.
- When I am worrying about something scary happening, I try to change the pictures in my head into something funny or silly.
- I gave my anxiety a name and talk back to it to tell it the truth.
- I ask myself if what I’m worried about is possible, then if it’s likely and if it is, what I could do if it did happen.
- I talk to my mom, which helps because she has anxiety, too, so she understands how I feel.
- When I’m feeling worried or scared all the time and I can’t stop it, I know it’s time to go talk to my counselor.
Dr. Erica Faulconer is native to Oklahoma City and enjoys being a part of this thriving community as a wife, mom of three beautiful children and pediatrician at Northwest Pediatrics. She received her bachelors degree in microbiology from Oklahoma State University, completed medical training at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine and spent her residency in pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Children’s Hospital, completing her training in 2013. Dr. Faulconer and her husband, Chris, are both avid sports fans who enjoy attending concerts and being outdoors at every opportunity.
Editor’s note: This column is the second in a 12-month series on family mental wellness, written by local experts on topics pertinent to parents and children. Columnists include Dr. Faulconer, Thai-An Truong, LPC, LADC, in private practice as a postpartum therapist and mom of two; Stacey Johnson, LPC, (@staceyjohnsonlife) in private practice at The Purple Couch and mom of eight; and Dr. Lisa Marotta. a psychologist, writer, speaker and mom in private practice in Edmond.