Anxious Children – 4 Ways to Help

Luke Whitmore

I am a mother to two sons, Jackson, age 11, and Jesse, age 12.  In the early years of my social work career, I worked in child welfare and children/youth mental health as a crisis response counsellor.  As both parent and professional, I care deeply about the mental health and overall well-being of children and youth in our families and communities.

We should all be concerned and paying attention to the mental health of our children and youth within society.  Evidence suggests that stress and anxiety are on the rise for today’s young people.  Even young children between the ages of 2 and 5 are showing higher levels of emotional upset and anxiety (Statistics Canada).

Many reasons are cited for this, including things like the impact of bullying, higher rates of divorce and the breakdown of the family, and poverty. Technology and high rates of screen time, less sleep and many other factors also have an effect. These contribute to higher stress and greater incidence of anxiety and depression among children and youth.

“Children and teens can experience mental illnesses like depression,” according to CMHA, the Canadian Mental Health Association. “Sometimes it can be difficult for adults to understand how difficult children’s problems can be because we look at their problems through adult eyes. But the pressures of growing up can be very hard for some children. It’s important that we remind ourselves that while their problems may seem unimportant to us, they can feel overwhelming to young people.”

While the cause of stress and anxiety among children matters, so too does our response and our efforts to help.  As adults, how can we effectively help children and youth cope with stress and anxiety in the hope of fostering their overall resilience and mental health?

1. Listen

I recall when working as a counsellor with children and youth that many young people would say that the adults in their life didn’t listen to them or didn’t understand.  Showing you care through actively listening and seeking to understand creates a strong foundation for empathy, compassion and support in children’s lives – all of which are critical ingredients for fostering resilience and mental health in children.

The key purpose of listening is to allow someone else to feel heard, which can have a positive effect on reducing stress and anxiety.  Encouraging children and youth to express their thoughts and feelings is good for their overall health and well-being.

2. Pay attention and speak up

Become familiar with and notice signs of depression, anxiety and stress. Take these things seriously. Try to understand the various stressors and pressures that might be facing the children you care about and support. Let children know you care about them; let them know you see them and their challenges and express your desire to help.

Offer comfort and reassurance, including tender loving care (when appropriate) as well as simply being together with them, reminding the child they are not alone.  Avoid saying things like “Don’t worry” to an anxious child, since this can minimize their feelings and sometimes cause them to experience even greater angst, upset or worry.

3. Help children learn coping skills

Teach children stress management, anxiety reduction and healthy living skills, including the importance of eating a healthy diet, getting proper rest and adequate sleep, regular exercise, as well as how to foster social connections and positive peer relationships. All of these things are proven to contribute to better overall health and mental well-being.

Children can benefit greatly from mindfulness practices and other calming, grounding activities such as yoga and time in nature.  Learning these coping skills can help them feel empowered to cope with stress and anxiety in their lives in the present and future.

4. Model positive and healthy lifestyle

Children learn more from watching what we do than from listening to what we say.  They watch for congruence.  Are we walking our talk as adults in their lives? Are we managing stress effectively; are we living a healthy and balanced lifestyle? Are we taking care of our own mental health?  The answers to these questions will greatly influence how our children cope in their own lives.

It is helpful to model optimism, hope and a solution-focused approach to adversity, stress and challenges. These attributes are at the heart of increasing our resilience at any age.

By being a supporting, non-judgmental, present and caring adult in children and youth’s lives, we are part of their social support system.  We can also help ensure that stigma is reduced when it comes to mental illness, so that children and youth can share their thoughts and feelings openly.

There are far more children and youth in need of mental health services and support than those who receive them. For example, in Canada only 1 out of 5 children who need mental health services receives them.  This is a call to action for us all.  How can you support the mental health and well-being of children and youth in your family and community?

As adults, teachers, parents and caring citizens, we can all be that one person who makes a positive and significant difference in a child’s life.

Lynda Monk, MSW, RSW
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute
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