Anxious child sitting on stairs with face in hands

The Rise Of Anxiety In Kids

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You might not be surprised to hear that the rate of people who are experiencing anxiety has increased over the past year. It’s not hard to imagine why this would be the case given the uncertainty we’ve all been facing.

What I hadn’t considered is how much it has affected our children. The National Center for Biotechnology Information recently published a study conducted in China. The study showed symptoms of anxiety in kids increasing by 15.79% from 2019 to 2020.

Even though kids are less likely to get COVID they are still feeling the stress of it, like the rest of us. I do believe that kids are resilient, but I also think they’re feeling anxious more than we realize.

When I heard this, I started thinking about some of the challenges we’ve been facing in our house.

Sleep Regression

For example, my son has been waking up in the middle of the night more often over the past few months. He comes in our bedroom saying that he’s scared and ends up sleeping with us. While this could be attributed to a number of things, part of me wonders if it’s related to the pandemic. He’s also regressed a little bit and gone back to showing some symptoms of separation anxiety.

He doesn’t want to go upstairs in our house without an adult. Some separation anxiety is typical for young kids, but he had kind of grown out of that before the pandemic.

He used to feel comfortable going anywhere in our house as long as his older brother was with him.  Now he waits on the stairs for me to go with him even to grab something from his bedroom.

Using Art To Talk About Feelings

As a former play therapist, I’m always thinking about ways to get my kids to use art or play to show me what they’re feeling. When I recently attended a training on childhood anxiety, I was reminded about how kids need things to be tangible.  They don’t always have the language developed yet to tell you how they’re feeling. So giving them a way to show you what they’re thinking or feeling gives them what they need to communicate that with you.

When I asked my son the other day to tell me why he didn’t want to go in the bathroom without me, he said it was because he was afraid of monsters.  Instead of saying, “But you know monsters aren’t real,” I asked him to tell me more about it.

He wasn’t really able to tell me what the monster looked like, but I could tell he was trying to describe it. He paused for a moment and said that it was hard to describe. Then about 5 minutes later, he told me that it wasn’t a monster it was a bug.

I asked him if he could draw a picture of it, but he said he didn’t want to. I didn’t push him too hard, because I knew that wouldn’t help. So we talked about how he knows Taekwondo and he can fight any monsters that come around.

I also reminded him that if there are any bugs in our house, they are probably going to be tiny and he’s so much bigger than them. He kept asking me questions about bugs over the next few days. Anytime he did I answered them of course. The cool thing that happened was he slept through the night for a few days.

I also asked my other son to draw a picture of something he worries about. He doesn’t want me to share his picture, and I’m going to respect that. I was surprised to find out what he drew though and was able to give him some reassurance.

Name It To Tame It

What I’ve learned about anxiety is that talking about it doesn’t make it worse. In order to learn to manage it, you have to understand what’s causing it. That means figuring out what is causing the fear or worry, and then learning how to cope with it.

Prior to going back to school in October, my kids had been at home with me all day every day for 7 months. We weren’t really going anywhere and spending much time with friends. So naturally, they were more comfortable at home with me. It would be normal for going back to school face to face to trigger some anxiety for them.

The New Normal

Then when they did go back to school in October, there were all these new rules. Changes had to be made to keep everyone safe and school doesn’t look like it used to. Their old routines have been disrupted. Now they have to wear masks and sit further apart from their friends. Some of their friends aren’t even in the building!

My kids told me about a really cool game they play at recess where they use a pool noodle for tag. Instead of tagging each other, they touch them with a pool noodle. Even though this isn’t a negative thing, it’s still something different that they have to adjust to. They’re also only allowed to play with kids in their class at recess in a certain section of the playground. Every other year, they could play wherever they wanted and with kids from other classes in their grade.

To make matters worse, my kids have heard the grown-ups in their life talking about COVID and how many people have gotten it. Despite how much we’ve tried to protect them from the bad news, I’m sure they have overheard us talking about it.

The more you think about it, the more obvious it is why kids are more anxious.

We also have to remember how literal kids’ thinking is. It’s very black and white. So if your child hears you talking about how many people have died from COVID, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to automatically think their parents might die if they get it.

This is another reason why we need to be careful about what we say in front of our kids. I’ve tried really hard to remind my kids that even if mommy or daddy get COVID, we’ll probably just get sick. We’re healthy and we don’t have any pre-existing health conditions. But it’s not that easy for kids to make that connection if you don’t reassure them.

My Anxiety Monster

I also did the art activity that I referenced earl myself. I was surprised what came to my mind when I started drawing my anxiety monster. What I thought of when I was drawing it is how stressed and tired my anxiety makes me feel sometimes.

I started drawing my monster to be an old person with crazy hair, but then had a memory about when I was a kid and watched the movie Signs. There’s a scene in that movie where an alien crosses across the screen briefly. That part always freaked me out!

My anxiety looks like a green alien with his hands in the air

I think that drawing my anxiety monster brought out some fears that I have been trying to avoid thinking about for a long time! When I was a kid, I remember being afraid that aliens would come and abduct me in my sleep. Luckily I no longer have that fear, but apparently it’s still something that comes up for me sometimes!

The uncertainty and constant changes we’ve been facing over the past year have led to added stress for all of us. Some people may be better at hiding it than others, but I think it’s safe to say we’ve all been affected in one way or another.

I’ve personally been pretty proud of how well my kids have adjusted and adapted to all this uncertainty! Our school has gone back and forth from virtual school to in-person multiple times this year. Some weeks that change has come unexpectedly, and everyone has had to quickly adjust.

Thank goodness kids are resilient.

At the same time, that constant need to adapt and change their routine has been hard on them! So no wonder the rate of childhood anxiety is going up.

The good news is that there is hope. Taking time to talk to your kids about how they feel and empowering them to cope with their fears can help.

Strategies for managing anxiety in kids

Strategies For Managing Anxiety In Kids

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Books

There are tons of books that can help you start a conversation with your child about what’s causing their anxiety. Here are a few of my favorite:

My Monster and Me by Nadiya Hussain

Penelope Perfect by Shannon Anderson

Wilma Jean the Worry Machine by Julia Cook

Jonathan James and the Whatif Monster by Michelle Nelson-Schmidt

Worry Says What by Allison Edwards

Ruby Finds a Worry by Tom Percival

Workbooks

These are great workbooks for parents to do at home with their kids.

  • Worry Wars: An Anxiety Workbook for Kids and Their Special Adult by Paris Goodyear Brown

  • What To Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kids Guide To Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner

Art Activities

  • Worry Stone: When my son was having issues with anxiety about going to school last year his school counselor gave him a strategy that really helped him! She gave him a worry stone that he kept in his pocket and could hold when he was starting to get upset. He carried it everywhere and it really helped him a lot!
  • Worry Pet: Here’s a really cool similar strategy. If you’re feeling crafty, you and your child can make a worry pet. They can use take it to school to remind them to use their calm down strategies when they’re feeling anxious. It also helps them know that they have something friendly in their bag in case they need it.
  • Homemade Play Doh: You can make play doh with your kids and add soothing essential oils like lavender. Playing with play doh is a great way to pound out your frustrations or stress! Here’s one recipe for Calming Homemade Playdough by Brandi Brown.
  • Worry Worms– This is a great way for your child to tell you about what their worries are without even realizing it. It’s adapted from Paris Goodyear Brown’s book Worry Wars and an activity I used often with my play therapy clients. All you have to do is make worms out of construction paper and hide them around your house. Every time your child finds a worm, they have to tell you something they worry about. It’s an easy way to get the conversation about anxiety going with your child.

Mindfulness Activities

  • Here are 40+ Mindfulness Activities by fellow mom blogger Alice at Mommy to Mom. She breaks them down by age and even has some ideas for teaching mindfulness to your babies!
  • We love doing Cosmic Kids Yoga on Youtube. There are some really fun videos like Pokemon,  Minecraft, and Harry Potter that are great for little boys. They have tons of different ones for every age and interest though.
  • Calm Down Glitter Jar: This article from Kumarah Yoga teaches you how to make a calm down glitter jar. Depending on how flexible their teacher is, this is another strategy that your child could use a school.

Hopefully these strategies will help you and your child manage anxiety better. I have a few more strategies included in my previous post 8 Tips for Helping Kids with Back to School Anxiety.

If your child is experiencing anxiety or worry to the point where you feel like it’s beyond something you can help them with please make sure to seek professional help.

If you’re unsure if your child is anxious, here are a few common symptoms of anxiety in kids to look out for:

  1. Difficulty sleeping or frequently waking up in the middle of the night (after already sleeping through the night).
  2. Frequent stomach aches without an underlying medical reason.
  3. Clinginess to parents or becoming really upset when having to separate from caregiver.
  4. Explosive outbursts- this can sometimes be misinterpreted as misbehavior.
  5. Difficulty sitting still and/or constantly fidgeting.

These aren’t the only indicators that a child is anxious. Sometimes it can be hard to know if a child is struggling because many of the symptoms above can also be normal depending on their stage of development. Check out this article on Child Mind Institute for their advice on when to worry about an anxious child.

Calling your child’s pediatrician is always a great place to start. You can also find a registered play therapist on the Association For Play Therapy’s website here.

This post contains affiliate links. As an affiliate partner, we receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

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