Helping Kids Cope with Anxiety
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10 Common Anxiety Triggers for Children and Teens — and How to Deal With Them

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Helping Kids Cope with Anxiety
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Eye of the Storm

Anxiety is common and even normal in every stage of life. Think of a fussy baby, a 2-year-old's tantrum, an elementary school child not wanting to go to school, or a teen nervous about an upcoming test. Depending on the kid and the situation, the anxiety can be mild. This is to be expected and usually comes and goes in phases as a child grows and learns to cope. That said, some people experience anxiety to a greater extent. "It may be time to seek the assistance of a licensed psychologist or counselor when the anxiety seems to be impairing functioning with one's daily life in at least two settings, such as at home, at school, at work (if applicable), and in social settings," says Tina Schneider, Ph.D., a licensed counseling psychologist who works in private practice in Westerville, Ohio. The following are some very common anxiety triggers that your child will likely face throughout childhood and the teenage years. The more you know, the better equipped you'll be to help them when these situations arise.

Children: Separation Anxiety
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Children: Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety typically presents itself in children as young as 18 months old and can continue through elementary school. The trigger is separation. Drop-offs to preschool, daycare, school, and activities can become very difficult with this anxiety. "For children who worry about being separated from their caregivers, I suggest using a transitional object. This could be anything that reminds the child of the caregiver," says Angela Medellin, LPC-S, RPT-S, and owner of San Antonio-based Mind Works. "I often engage caregivers and children in creating felt hearts with positive affirmations written on them. One is given to the child to carry with them, and the other goes to the caregiver. This is a reminder that even though the child is separated from their loved one, they still have a reminder of them."

Children: Fear of Making Mistakes
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Children: Fear of Making Mistakes

The fear of making mistakes is a common trigger for children. Often, a lot of emphasis is put on paying attention, learning to read, writing your name, making friends, and being an all-around overachiever from a very young age. "The education system revolves around rewarding achievement and trying to improve shortcomings. This means that children may begin to rely too heavily on the fact that their grades and achievements define who they are. This results in a fear of making mistakes — which is inevitable because perfection is an unattainable goal," says Adina Mahalli, MSW, a certified mental health expert with Maple Holistics. "Encouraging your child to do better is never a bad thing, but make sure that you don't only praise them or punish your child based on their achievements. They should know that their parents love them regardless if they make mistakes."

Children: Changes in Routine
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Children: Changes in Routine

Children in general need structure and routine, but it becomes even more important with anxious children. Not everyone likes change, and young children especially often aren't forewarned that change is about to happen, so they have no time to prepare for it. "If you know a change is coming, one technique you can do is called previewing," says Medellin. "This is letting a child know what is happening before it happens. Parents of children with high anxiety sometimes have to ‘preview' the situation or event. For example, having your child see their new school before everyone else does, or visiting the place they will be going to before it happens."

Children: Phobias
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Children: Phobias

Typical childhood phobias include things like a fear of storms or a fear of needles. With the latter example, one study found that fearing needles is most common in kids 4 through 9. If your child struggles with this specific phobia, Medellin offers some advice: "For children that struggle with this, I encourage parents of young children to role play the doctor visit at home. The child can pretend they are the doctor and administer pretend shots to stuffed animals or caregivers," she says.

Children: Parent Arguments and Divorce
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Children: Parent Arguments and Divorce

It's never fun when people argue, and children hear and see more than many parents think. Kids are very attuned to their parents' relationship with each other, which means it's important to be mindful about not only what's talked about, but how parents talk to each other in front of their kids. Listening to parents argue is another common anxiety trigger among kids. "Many children fear that their parents will end up getting a divorce. Children often internalize a parent's divorce as something they may have done" and "feel that it was their ‘bad behavior' that led to their parent's breakup," says Medellin. "I encourage parents to have important discussions behind closed doors, and to be mindful of the tone of voice they use to communicate with each other."

Children and Teens: Social Anxiety
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Children and Teens: Social Anxiety

Social issues are a common cause of anxiety for kids of all ages starting as early as they begin making friends. "Making connections with others is a fundamental aspect of being human. As a child, a common anxiety trigger is fitting in with social circles and acceptance," says Mahalli. "When these are questioned, it can cause a child to question their worth, which, in turn, leads to anxiety. One way to deal with this is to ensure that your child has a built-up sense of self-worth. When they have the self-confidence to know that they are intrinsically worthy, being picked last in gym class won't trigger anxiety."

Tweens and Teens: Bullying
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Tweens and Teens: Bullying

Bullying is common. The governmental website StopBullying.gov says that it is most common in middle school, and that more than 70% of young people have witnessed a bullying incident, and about 20% aged 12 to 18 have themselves been bullied. Whether a target or witness, incidents of bullying are an unsettling event that can cause anxiety. As parents, it's natural to want to jump in and rescue our kids, but experts say stepping in can make things worse and cause you to lose your child's trust. It's best to listen to your child without judgement and, instead of taking control, let your child decide how they will handle the situation and empower them with some strategies to do so.

Teens: Performance Anxiety
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Teens: Performance Anxiety

Many teens have a hard time dealing with performance anxiety — sports, tests, grades, presentations, college applications, and the like. It's similar to when they are young children, but to a greater extent. According to Schneider, this can be addressed by identifying those anxiety-causing situations associated with performance that might be seen as less stressful and easier to handle, and "taking small steps toward being successful in those situations." Because success might come somewhat easier with smaller hurdles, they can "provide a teen with the success needed to master the other situations that may be perceived as more stressful."

Teens: Peer Pressure
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Teens: Peer Pressure

Peer pressure is a huge deal in the teenage years, and unavoidable. Your parents are telling you one thing, while your friends and peers are telling you another, which might include engaging in high-risk behaviors. "It is common for a teenager to believe that he or she is invincible and that bad things will not happen to them," says Schneider. She explains that a teen's frontal lobe, which is responsible for rational decision-making, including planning and thinking about the possible consequences of actions, is not fully developed until he or she is past the age of 20. "For a teenager there is often anxiety associated with the pressure to conform to the behaviors of peers," Schneider says. The Child Development Institute says that parents can help on this front — "As with most issues, start talking to your teens early. Teach them what kind of behavior you expect from them and what you won't tolerate. Also teach them how to say no when they don't want to do something, and how to get out of various bad situations. You may even want to go as far as role playing with your child."

Teens: Negative Thinking
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Teens: Negative Thinking

Teens are going through a period of rapidly changing brain development, says Schneider, that includes an emphasized reliance on the amygdala and hippocampus, parts of the brain associated with emotions, mood regulation and long-term memory. "For these reasons," she notes, "teenagers may impulsively" — and often negatively — "react to situations with their emotions. This type of responding is then likely to transfer to the long-term-memory and become the default way of responding, that is unless a new way of thinking is introduced." That's where mindfulness and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy — being aware of events "without connecting an emotional reaction to it" — can help, Schneider says. Mindfulness and associated therapies "aid in the development of executive functioning to promote planning, information processing, and considering consequences of a situation, as well as maturation of the prefrontal cortex." Mindfulness taught at this stage of development "will promote healthy decision-making," Schneider says, and can therefore help limit negative thinking and anxiety.