These are challenging days for kids and parents alike. As a therapist, I sit with many kids and teens who are learning to overcome anxiety as they navigate the highs and lows of growing up. Like you and me, they experience sadness and have days when they are irritable and can’t seem to find their coping skills. During a year like 2020, in which children and teens have experienced more isolation than normal and many lived with major disruptions to their “regularly scheduled lives,” anxiety and depression are on the upswing. But how do we, as adults, know when worry is too big a deal and the blues are drifting toward depression?
Worry has a way, but anxiety has a look.
Anxiety can be a healthy and helpful force in our lives—let’s normalize it for kids! Worrying about the big exam motivates a child to study. Going to a sleep-away camp for the first time is a big step—trying new things can be scary, and it’s appropriate to feel nervous. As adults, we know kids have what it takes to make it through situations that provoke anxiety. But what happens when they can’t see themselves overcoming their worry?
One important factor in determining the difference between run-of-the-mill worry and clinical anxiety is intensity. When a child’s reaction is much stronger and larger than the source or incident, it’s likely that you’re dealing with more than a case of the worries.
As I’m working with kids and teens, I’m looking for intensity and interference, specifically the intensity of the child’s reaction and if it’s within a range that is tolerable. Secondly, I am curious about how much anxiety is interfering with the rhythms of your home and her life. Interference is a big factor. When I meet with parents who are seeking help for their child, I often want to know how this disrupts their lives. When anxiety keeps us from doing what we want or should do—playing the sport she loves or attending events he has enjoyed in the past—it’s a clear sign that your child needs extra support in overcoming anxiety.
Tips for parenting an anxious child:
- Avoid the urge to accommodate. As our children struggle, it’s natural to want to remove the hurdles that seem to trip them up. With worry, allowing children to avoid the worry only makes it grow. Instead, remind your child that he/she is safe and has everything he/she needs, inside and out, to make it through.
- Take it one baby step at a time. Learning to become comfortable with discomfort is a process. Help your child by pacing the process of facing his/her anxiety.
- Keep a track record. When your child makes progress, take note. Remind him or her of how they tolerated the anxiety yesterday and you know that he/she can do that, and maybe more, tomorrow.
- Anxious kids underestimate their ability to handle adversity. Remind your child that he or she has what it takes to get through this challenge. Remind your daughter or son that you know they can do hard things. Remind them of times they have done what they thought they couldn’t.
Sometimes I’m sad.
There are things that, quite simply, just make us sad—missing out on a fun opportunity, trouble with friends, fights with siblings. Sadness typically happens in spurts—it is usually episodic and is often brought on by a specific occurrence. But what about depression? What’s the difference?
Again, we want to look at intensity and interruption.
Has your child been down for several days in a row with little ability to rebound from the emotional setback? Has he or she lost interest in things he/she has historically enjoyed? Depression, in a clinical sense, is more than a case of the blues. Several of the following symptoms would show up and hang around at an intensity that is elevated, interrupting your child’s typical lifestyle.
What does depression look like?
You might notice a difference in and disruption to typical sleep and eating patterns—sleeplessness or excessive sleeping may be present. It’s also possible that you’ll notice your child’s appetite is non-existent or has spiked significantly. Decreased energy and feelings of deep sadness or markedly low or irritable mood are consistent with depression. What we want to pay attention to is the duration of symptoms.
Go Back to the Basics
As you parent kids who are sad or depressed,
- Schedules make the difference. Establishing patterns and rhythms that are consistent each day help move us toward health.
- Good sleep hygiene is critical to overall health. Maintaining a consistent bedtime and time to wake up each day helps our bodies reset and restore.
- Movement is medicine. The CDC recommends 60 minutes of physical activity each and every day. Those endorphins we get from breaking a sweat make a big difference in our mood. Whether it’s a brisk walk or a bike ride, get your child moving.
- Eat balanced, healthy meals at appropriate meal times.
- Create space and time for your child to share his/her feelings.
When and where to seek extra help
If the descriptions above ring far too true for your child, the best place to start in seeking additional help is with your family pediatrician. Your child’s doctor can provide reputable referrals, but just as important, he or she can provide perspective. Seeing children all day every day gives him or her a close and personal view of behaviors that are typical and age-appropriate and those that may be more problematic.
This post is in no way a substitute for therapy or counseling.
Amy Jacobs holds her masters degree in marriage and family therapy and is a child and teen counselor at Daystar Counseling Ministries located in Nashville, Tennessee. When she’s not at work, she can be found hanging out with one of her many godchildren or on a trail with her goldendoodle, Jeff, who is working diligently to become a pet therapist.