Stress and anxiety are a normal part of childhood, and every child can develop crippling worries about so many things, including test-taking and social situations. These kinds of worries can manifest into behaviors like withdrawal, shyness, tantrums, compulsive routines and more.
We’ve all heard our mothers or grandmothers say, “He’s going through a phase,” and while phases are temporary and usually harmless, there are other levels of stress and anxiety that trigger fear and avoidance.
Often, there are simple techniques and advice for parenting anxious children. Parents can teach their children coping techniques such as reassurance or breathing exercises. In extreme cases, anxiety and depression are also treatable, but 80 percent of kids with a diagnosable anxiety disorder and 60 percent of kids with diagnosable depression are not getting treatment, according to the 2015 Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report (www.childmind.org).
Research shows 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.
Roslyn A. Haber, Ed.D and Marlyn Press, Ed.D, associate professors at Touro College Graduate School of Education in New York, offered these tips to parents of children who have test-taking anxiety:
1. Make sure your child has a good night sleep and has a good breakfast.
2. Reassure your child if they ask questions such as, “What happens if I fail?”, “Will you still love me if I do not finish the test on time?”
3. Encourage your child to follow the test directions. That will help her do better.
4. Teach your child how to read over the test. Check key words such as: most, least, always, never. Only change an answer if you are sure it is incorrect. Many people change correct answers to incorrect ones.
5. Teach your child to take a deep breath when he is stressed. That can relieve some stress. Also, stretching during the test can help the child focus.
Additionally, in an article written for Child Mind Institute, Clark Goldstein, PhD, who specializes in children’s clinical psychology at NYU Child Study Center in New Hyde Park offers four of his pointers for helping children escape the cycle of anxiety.
None of us wants to see a child unhappy, but the best way to help kids overcome anxiety isn’t to try to remove stressors that trigger it. It’s to help them learn to tolerate their anxiety and function as well as they can, even when they’re anxious. And as a byproduct of that, the anxiety will decrease or fall away over time.
Helping children avoid the things they are afraid of will make them feel better in the short term, but it reinforces the anxiety over the long run. If a child in an uncomfortable situation gets upset, starts to cry—not to be manipulative, but just because that’s how she feels—and her parents whisk her out of there, or remove the thing she’s afraid of, she’s learned that coping mechanism, and that cycle has the potential to repeat itself.
You can’t promise a child that her fears are unrealistic—that she won’t fail a test, that she’ll have fun ice skating, or that another child won’t laugh at her during show & tell. But you can express confidence that she’s going to be okay, she will be able to manage it, and that, as she faces her fears, the anxiety level will drop over time. This gives her confidence that your expectations are realistic, and that you’re not going to ask her to do something she can’t handle.
It’s important to understand that validation doesn’t always mean agreement. So if a child is terrified about going to the doctor because she’s due for a shot, you don’t want to belittle her fears, but you also don’t want to amplify them. You want to listen and be empathetic, help her understand what she’s anxious about, and encourage her to feel that she can face her fears. The message you want to send is, “I know you’re scared and that’s okay,” and “I’m here and I’m going to help you get through this.”
Even the most well-meaning parents can exacerbate their child’s anxiety unintentionally. This usually happens when parents, anticipating their child’s fears, try to protect her from them.
Visit www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children (Anxiety and Depression Association of America) for more information about children and anxiety.