Anxiety. Just the word itself can be, well… anxiety producing! While it may be hard to define, we have all come to recognize the feeling of anxiety when we experience it – nervously prepping for a big interview, sweating in anticipation of a difficult conversation, pacing while awaiting the results of a medical test, and the list could go on!
For those of us with children in our lives, we’ve also likely witnessed them struggle with anxiety from time to time, whether they (or we) recognize it or not – crying at daycare drop off, stressing over a test, and the like.
So, how do we know when anxiety has crossed the line from normal to clinical? How do we recognize anxiety when it doesn’t fit this classic nervous mold? And, how can we support our little ones when they are experiencing big worries?
Most of us are able to identify anxiety as it comes up in our lives, and while we typically think of anxiety as an unpleasant experience, anxiety, in its most productive form, is actually quite useful. For example, if you weren’t worried about an upcoming test, you probably wouldn’t study or pass!
We also want our kids to experience a healthy dose of anxiety around expectations we’ve set for them. Worry about consequences like getting caught or getting hurt can be a big motivator when it comes to following the rules for both kids and adults alike.
Anxiety turns from productive to problematic when our experience overwhelms our ability to cope. While children are no different than adults in their feelings of anxiety, they have far fewer living experiences, less effective coping skills, and more limited communication skills. Therefore, children can experience more intense and frequent bursts of anxiety.
While there are many times that we are able to see and anticipate our children’s anxiety without much difficulty (for example, a child afraid to be in alone in the dark), sometimes anxiety can look less like nervousness and more like emotional or behavioral disruptions – making it more difficult to recognize.