How to Help Children Cope With Anxiety

A sibling with a major illness, a father who has lost his job, an undocumented mother who faces the threat of deportation, a packed extracurricular schedule and excessive academic pressure. These are just some of the situations that cause anxiety in children.

As the Manager of Mary’s Center’s School Based Mental Health Program, Marisa Parrella has years of experience in helping young people manage and overcome their fears. She shares some advice on how to recognize anxiety in children and help them cope.

Anxiety is manifested in various ways in children and symptoms can vary by age. Some common symptoms are:

  • Preoccupation with fears and worries
  • For young children, increased anxiety in separating from caregivers
  • Fidgeting, restlessness, irritability, disruptive behavior in school
  • Marked increase or decrease in appetite; over or undereating
  • Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep              

Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to help:

1. Acknowledge that the child may be feeling anxious and encourage him or her to share those feelings with you or a trusted caregiver.

2. Ensure you answer the child’s questions as truthfully and age appropriately as possible. Often, the child’s worry can be quelled by clearer information. You should also clarify any misinformation.

3. Identify and address some common physical symptoms associated with anxiety such as headaches or stomach aches, excessive sweating, racing heartbeat and fidgeting caused by increased levels of cortisone, one of the main hormones released by the adrenal gland in response to stress. These symptoms can be scary and make a child feel out of control and unable to focus in school:

- Try this common relaxation technique to help manage physical symptoms at home, school, and before bed. 

Sit firmly in a chair or the floor, grounding your body/feet to the floor.

Ask child to close his or her eyes (you can do this together) and with you take 5 deep breaths, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth

It’s also helpful to have the child put his or her hand on his or her belly and feel the belly expand and contract (with small children, we call this “belly breathing”)

- Encourage the child to participate in physical activities such as classroom yoga, stretching, or even a walk around the classroom or outside – fresh air helps!

4. Make mealtime a positive time for the family; prepare healthy foods your child enjoys; talk about the child’s day and practice relaxation before and after; once sleep and physical symptoms subside, appetite will regulate more easily

5. Don’t allow children to watch news channels unless you watch together and discuss what they hear (age dependent); turn off screens at least an hour before bedtime; have a nightly routine such as a bath, books, and snuggling together and start that routine early in the evening; practice the deep breathing technique described above before bed. Make sure your child doesn’t consume sugary drinks close to bedtime.

6. Take care of YOURSELF! Children sense anxiety from parents, caregivers, and teachers.  Practice your own relaxation strategies so you can better support children with whom you interact.

If you would like to make an appointment with one of our highly-qualified and compassionate therapists, please call our Behavioral Health department at 202-420-7122.

Read more about our School-Based Mental Health Program.

About Marisa Parrella, LICSW, LCSW-C

Marisa joined Mary's Center in February 2014. She is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (D.C.) and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (Maryland). Marisa holds a Master's degree in Social Work from the University of Michigan and completed a Post Graduate Fellowship in Clinical Social Work at the Yale University Child Study Center. She speaks English and Spanish and enjoys running, hiking, cooking, reading and travel.


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