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How to Help Kids Navigate the Age of Angst

Parents understanding the difference between everyday worry and anxiety helps struggling kids

Heidi Borst
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Published on: August 29, 2022

Young boy looking out a window looking sad

Editor’s note: This article was sponsored by THIRA Health.

In the past two years, the stage has been set for more people to experience anxiety than ever before. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has seen a 25 percent uptick in rates of anxiety and depression. What’s more, a worsening crisis in child and adolescent mental health has resulted in a declaration of a national youth mental health emergency by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association.

Needless to say, it’s a scary time to be a parent. We want to make sure that our kids are okay, and that starts with supporting their mental health. With the increasing prevalence of anxiety, it’s more important than ever to recognize its signs. That way, we can help our children develop methods and capacities for managing it themselves. Here’s what parents need to know about anxiety, plus practical ways to work through it.

What ‘everyday’ worry looks like

It’s troubling when our kids experience angst, but mild anxiety is normal. In fact, our brains are hardwired to worry, notes Sarah Skoterro, LPCC, LADAC, a practicing therapist and director of business development at THIRA Health. To put that into perspective, think about how much time you spend fretting over little things each day, or “micro-assessing,” as Skoterro calls it. For example: Did I pay that bill on time? Am I going to be late for work? Did my child remember to grab their lunch? Where did I put my phone?

The good news? This common form of everyday worry typically doesn’t last long, Skoterro says. It’s specific to a situation, and it’s generally short-lived. For example, your teen might be worried about their performance on an exam, or maybe they have first-date jitters. In either scenario, after the event passes, so does the worry.

How to tell the difference between worry and anxiety

When it comes to anxiety, worry persists even after a situation is resolved. Say you thought you left the oven on, so you call a family member at home to check. They tell you it’s off, but you just can’t shake those anxious feelings. “With worry, I can turn it off. I can go drink some chamomile tea and calm my nervous system down. With anxiety, it’s not that easy. You just can’t turn off the distress that you’re feeling — emotionally and physically,” Skoterro explains.

Anxiety is an active state that is very noticeable. If you’re seeing any of these signs in your child, anxiety is likely at play:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Inability to complete normal tasks
  • Excessive crying
  • Feelings of being out of control
  • Rocking back and forth
  • Increased perspiration

To help kids calm down when they’re feeling this way, Skoterro recommends diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing.” It’s a quick way to reset the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for activating your body’s fight-or-flight response. To do it, you’ll use your diaphragm, the muscle at the bottom of your lungs, to take deep inhalations.

Start by placing your hand on your rib cage and another at the top of your chest. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, keeping the hand on your chest very still while your stomach expands beneath your other hand. Purse your lips and breathe out, tightening your abdominal muscles to exhale all of the air. Doing this for five minutes will decrease your heart rate, helping you to relax.

Generalized anxiety disorder

Some people may have a lot of anxiety surrounding one specific thing, such as a fear of being in an elevator or anxiety about dogs. But for people with generalized anxiety disorder, there is no specific precipitating lead-in, says Skoterro.

You can be having a pretty decent day, and it just comes on out of the blue, Skoterro says. “There’s no prompting event, like Ten minutes ago, I saw a spider and now I’m having an anxiety attack. It literally hits you like a ton of bricks. You have a fast heart rate, sweaty palms, flushing of the skin and a racing mindset. It feels like instead of you getting anxious, anxiety got you.”

Spotting extreme anxiety and panic attacks

If anxiety is like being halfway up an escalator, with panic attacks, you’re all the way at the top, Skoterro explains. A full-blown panic attack is paralyzing. “It’s like the whole sprinkler system gets turned on. You may lose part of your vision. You’re hyperventilating, your heart is racing, you’re sweating.”

There are three main components of panic and anxiety:

  1. Physical sensations: Symptoms such as a rapid pulse, nervous stomach, sweating, shaking and restlessness, among others, can last for minutes or even hours.
  2. Thoughts and beliefs: These include scary thoughts, such as I am going to faint, I am having a heart attack, They are making fun of me and I am losing control, or general thoughts about bad things that could happen in the future.
  3. Behaviors: These could include pacing, fidgeting or leaving an area when the feelings of panic occur (such as bailing on a baseball game, leaving the mall or running out of church).

Parents should look out for a cluster of these symptoms in their children:

  • Intense racing heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or tightness in the chest
  • Trembling hands
  • Bouncing foot or leg
  • Constricting throat
  • Excessive sweating
  • Feeling light-headed
  • Changes in body temperature (hot or cold)
  • Nausea or digestive distress
  • Feeling detached from reality

How to help kids manage mild anxiety

If you or your child experiences everyday worry or mild anxiety, it’s usually manageable to handle at home. Skoterro recommends the following actions to alleviate mild anxiety when it occurs:

  • Take a break from social media
  • Practice mindfulness or meditation
  • Get some moderate exercise
  • Talk to friends about your feelings
  • Try progressive muscle relaxation
  • Put something cold on your hands or face
  • Do a deep breathing exercise (breathing in for a count of three, breathing out for a count of five at the same pace)

Skoterro also suggests parents should make a habit of taking intentional timeouts. That means taking a break, putting down the phone and laptop, and sitting down outside to just be still. “Unplug every day on purpose and make it obvious. Even if you have a surly 15-year-old who’s like, ‘I am not going to sit on the patio with you. That’s gross,’” you’re still modeling the behavior.

Treatment for severe anxiety

General anxiety disorder and more severe forms of anxiety are tougher to treat, so if you or your child is struggling, it may be time to reach out to a professional for help. THIRA Health utilizes a research-backed cognitive behavioral therapy called dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, which focuses on mindfulness, acceptance and emotional regulation skills.

“DBT is a therapy that teaches people how to respond and be effective in all sorts of situations, so they learn how to have their emotions, but not let their emotions have them,” says Skoterro, adding that DBT is highly effective in treating suicide ideation.

For resources on DBT and what to do when you’re feeling out of control due to fear, anxiety or suicidal thoughts, Skoterro recommends visiting DBTSelfHelp.com and Now Matters Now.

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