Anxiety in Young Kids: 4 Ways to Help - Nemours Blog


Anxiety in Young Kids: 4 Ways to Help

Afraid preschooler curled up in chair shows impact of anxiety in young kids

Many parents wonder: “Is my child’s anxiety normal? Should I be worried?” While anxiety in young kids can be nerve-wracking for parents, it has a lot to do with age and development. Anxiety about a certain trigger can be completely appropriate at one stage and inappropriate at another.

For example, it’s entirely normal for children up to age 2 to have some degree of separation anxiety, but we hope that kids are able to separate without too many tears around ages 3 or 4. Being worried about dogs, bees, storms and sudden loud noises is totally understandable for 3- and 4-year-olds because they’re starting to understand that the world can be scary sometimes.

It’s also expected that kids of this age will go through a phase when they’re exercising mastery of their environment – when it’s “my way or the highway,” which can often be mistaken for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). For example, kids may grow frustrated if they’re not able to wear their favorite (mismatched) outfit or arrange their belongings just so. These behaviors can be exasperating, but they are quite common and usually fade over time.

What You Can Do: 4 Ways to Help Your Child Cope

Here are some tactics that may help with your child’s worries, fears and anxieties.

1. Don’t go overboard with reassurance.

How we react can either calm or fan the flames. It’s instinctual for parents to mention the anxiety trigger and repeatedly reassure the child: “Don’t be scared. He’s a friendly dog – he won’t hurt you. Look, his tail is wagging… etc.” This just brings more attention to the scary thing in the room and might even cause kids to try to convince YOU that it is, indeed, scary.

Instead, think about labeling, validating and coping with the child’s fear. Say: “You’re worried about the dog – that’s OK. When I’m worried, I sing my ‘brave song.’ Let’s sing it together so we can be brave!” This takes the focus off the anxiety trigger and suggests a way to cope with the fear.

2. Offer rewards.

Rewarding brave behavior is also a very effective way to manage children’s anxiety in a fun and positive way. Just like in adult life when we’re rewarded for facing our fears (e.g., getting kudos after giving a nerve-wracking presentation to the boss), we can reward kids when they face their fears using a “brave” sticker or little treat.

The key is to start slowly and reinforce small brave actions without applying too much pressure. Going back to fears about dogs: Kids might not be ready to pet a dog, but they might be ready to earn a sticker for staying in the same room as the dog. Soon enough, they may be earning stickers for standing next to the dog, putting their hands on the dog, and finally petting the dog. Make sure that you’re verbally rewarding them as well by saying how proud you are of their bravery!

3. Play “brave games.”

Kids who get a little too anxious when they aren’t calling all the shots and when things aren’t “perfect” can also benefit from facing their fears. Playing “brave games” is a great way to get children more comfortable with anxiety triggers.

For example, if kids can’t tolerate getting dirty or coloring outside of the lines, you might suggest a “brave game” with a cool prize at the end. First, set the stage by telling kids they’re going to color outside the lines, or get their hands dirty on purpose and when they do, you’ll both say, “Oh well!” Each time they say “Oh well!” to prove that it doesn’t matter to them, they earn a prize. It’s important to keep in mind that rewarding children for facing their anxieties and being brave is NOT bribery. Instead, think of this as an important life lesson that will serve them well over time: Good things happen when we overcome our fears!

4. Find a delicate balance.

Even the most well-meaning parents can exacerbate their kids’ anxiety through their reaction. A child’s fears may anger parents who feel their expectations are not being met. We never want to berate or punish kids for not facing their fears – this only serves to heighten the anxiety because kids are then not only worried about what caused the anxiety in the first place, they’re worried about your judgment and reaction.

If a child refuses to get on stage for a preschool recital, you may feel disappointed, but try to be calm and matter-of-fact. You might say: “All right then. Can I have a private performance?” It’s a balancing act: We should not browbeat our kids into facing their fears, but it is equally damaging to let them off the hook every time they feel fearful.

When to Get Professional Help for Anxiety in Young Kids

There may be cause for concern if these kinds of fears and behaviors continue for too long a time, or if they interfere with the family’s day-to-day life. If children have meltdowns every day when dropped off at preschool or kindergarten, if they insist on elaborate routines or repetitive behaviors, it may be time to seek professional advice. The first port of call should be a doctor or a similar medical professional. They may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication, refer you to somewhere offering Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), or suggest trying something like these CBD capsules made by Gold Bee. All of these have been found to help to treat and manage anxiety.

Parents may want to ask themselves:

  • Is it getting any better?
  • To what extent does it disrupt daily life?
  • How severely does your child react, compared to same-age peers, when things don’t go his or her way?
  • Does it seem like “normal” behavior?

When trying to determine how much a behavior interferes with your child’s life, think about such things as:

  • frequent hand washing that results in your child missing play time
  • rigidity about lining up toys in a certain pattern that prevents other kids and you from playing with your child
  • refusing to have nails or hair cut to the point where it never gets done
  • following such a strict sequence of events in order to get out the door in the morning that you’re often late to work

If kids are inconsolable when these demands aren’t met and it’s hurting their/your quality of life, it may be time to see a child psychologist.

It’s important to know that anxiety in young kids is often treatable. Families have come to a psychologist with long-term problems that, with guidance and consistent practice, can be managed well. The key is to work step by step, encourage bravery, and always keep your cool.

Maia Noeder, PhD

Dr. Noeder is a child psychologist at Nemours Children's Hospital in Wilmington, Del.