8 Things Caregivers Can Do to Ease Young Children’s AnxietyFebruary 16, 2023
Young children who frequently experience anxious feelings need patient, caring, and knowledgeable adults to provide them with effective support. Adapted from the home visiting guidebook Tackling the Tough Stuff by Angela Tomlin and Stephan A. Viehweg, the tips in today’s blog post can help. Share these ideas with the parents of young children—and adapt them for any setting to help kids work through their fears and worries.
Prepare children for events they might find scary. Cautious young children will do better with new things when given plenty of advance preparation. Use books, TV programs when appropriate, or other indirect ways to get a child used to a feared object, person, or situation. For example, a visit to the doctor may be anxiety-provoking because it involves close contact with a person who is not seen frequently and may have given them shots in the past. To help a child prepare for a doctor visit, read books and watch children’s programs about doctors to gain familiarity. Provide a doctor’s kit and encourage the child to pretend to give the caregiver, doll, or stuffed animal a checkup. Take the child to the doctor’s office for a visit that does not involve a checkup. It might also help to see an older sibling successfully complete a doctor’s visit.
Encourage children’s curiosity and play. Specific, actively encouraging statements are more helpful for shy and anxious children than just warm statements. Encouraging statements provide an actual suggestion about what to do (e.g., “You can sit and play in the sandbox with that little girl.”) instead of simply offering words of general praise, like “You’re doing great!”*
Teach children to recognize and name feelings.
Children who have difficulty recognizing basic emotions may be more likely to incorrectly interpret another person’s facial expression and emotion as negative, increasing their anxiety. Help children identify feelings by pointing out emotional states in other people (“That boy’s mommy had to go in the other room and he was worried about where she was.”) and naming emotional states in the child (“You are so excited to go to the park! Tell your feet to be calm so they can go into their shoes so we can leave.”)
Read this blog post for 10 Activities for Teaching Young Children About Emotions!
Give support and comfort in new situations. For anxious children to feel comfortable enough to interact with other people, approach new toys, or explore new situations, caregivers should provide support as the child warms up or comfort when the child is too dysregulated by fear. Caregivers who try to push the child to interact too soon, insist on interactions with new people, or leave the child too quickly in new situations will find that these methods don’t work–and may even make things worse.
Avoid dragging out separations. When dropping children off for child care or leaving them to go out, avoid dragging out the moment of separation. Settle the child with the adult who will be caring for them, and then follow three steps: say you are going, say that it is okay to stay with this person, and say that you will be back. Don’t sneak out and to try to avoid looking afraid or worried, as children will take their lead from their parents as to how to feel about the separation.
Offer alternative ways of connecting.
For young children who experience anxious feelings around interactions with others, try coaching them in low-contact (but still appropriate) methods of interacting. For example, teach a child to smile and wave to unfamiliar adults If making eye contact or speaking is too hard. A child who does not want to give a kiss or hug to a family member could give a high five or fist bump instead.
Provide increased structure. More structure in the home environment (as well as day care and school) is likely to ease anxiety in any child. That’s because structure, including regular routines, lets children feel that the world is predictable.
Select age-appropriate activities. Be sure that young children are engaged with activities that are appropriate for their developmental level and don’t contain frightening imagery that can increase their anxiety. For example, shield young children from scary movies and video games used by adults or older children in the home.
Need activity ideas?
Check out these 24 At-Home Learning Activities to Share with Parents of Young Children!
Red Flags for Possible Anxiety Disorder
When anxiety and avoidant behaviors are severe, they can interfere with daily activities of the child or family. Watch for red flags regarding possible anxiety disorders in young children. Referral to a child’s physician or a mental health specialist may be indicated when you see red-flag behaviors like these:
- There is a family history of anxiety disorder.
- Anxiety starts in infancy and continues in early childhood or school age.
- Compared to peers, the child’s fears are more intense and frequent and occur across settings.
- The child’s fears are undifferentiated (i.e., occur with dangerous and nondangerous things).
- The child’s anxiety or avoidant behavior interferes with family functioning (e.g., the family cannot go out due to extreme child reactions to new places and people).
- The child is too fearful to do something they like or want to do.
- The child displays excessive clinginess with caregivers, refusing to be alone or left with others.
- The child experiences sleep disturbance due to anxiety about sleeping, dreams, or being alone at night.
Want more practical guidance on working effectively with young children and families? Add the book Tackling the Tough Stuff to your library!
Tackling the Tough Stuff
A Home Visitor’s Guide to Supporting Families at Risk
By Angela M. Tomlin, Ph.D., HSPP, IMH-E (IV), & Stephan A. Viehweg, ACSW, LCSW, IMH-E (IV)
The problem-solving framework in this guide will help home visitors manage even the toughest on-the-job challenges—and support and empower vulnerable families of children birth to 3. The authors’ PAUSE framework (Perceive, Ask, Understand, Strategize, and Evaluate) walks home visitors through the entire process of addressing problems, from recognizing a difficult situation to evaluating the chosen action steps.
*Grady, J.S., & Karraker, K. (2014). Do maternal warm and encouraging statements reduce shy toddler’s social reticence? Infant and Child Development, 23, 295–303.
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