Peace of Mind: How to Help a Child with Anxiety

Is your kid often anxious before a test or about things she saw on the news? Ease her worries with these low-key strategies.

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My 7-year-old daughter, Stella, had always been good at spelling. So when her first-grade teacher announced a spelling bee, I was excited. Stella, on the other hand, started worrying. "I don't understand why we have to spell the words in front of everyone," she complained. Then on the morning of the bee, she said she didn't want to go to school because her stomach hurt.

Experts say Stella's response was normal. Even happy-go-lucky kids tend to worry more once they hit 7 or 8, as they gain a greater understanding of the world around them and start to realize how much isn't in their control. "At this age, there's a shift from monster-under-the-bed kind of worries to real-life ones -- whether it's that a natural disaster will strike or that they'll let the baseball team down," says Jenn Berman, Psy.D., Parents advisor and author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids.

Most 7- and 8-year-olds will tell you their worries, but be on the lookout for symptoms like trouble sleeping, stomachaches, headaches, or acting out. Your child may need professional help if her anxiety causes her to avoid many situations, or if she seems constantly under stress. But kid worries usually aren't cause for too much concern. See how to calm down your little nervous Nellie.

Hear out your worrywart entirely before giving him advice. Your kid wants to be certain that you understand and empathize with his tricky situation.

Real-Life Worry: New Situations

It's the week before your son's first overnight trip with the Boy Scouts, and he's making a million excuses not to go. Your instinct may be to immediately reassure him, but find out specifically what he's fretting about first, says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., a child psychologist and author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety. "You may be tempted to say, 'Don't worry. No one is going to be mean to you,' when in reality he was really worried about how he'll find his way around. Now you've given him something new to worry about." To figure out his specific concern, ask, "What do you think is going to happen?" Then think of several things that the two of you can do ahead of time to help ease his fear. Perhaps it's looking up information online about the trip before it starts or asking an older scout to tell your kid what it was last year. Often children this age do worry about making friends. If that's the case, Dr. Chansky recommends helping him recall other times he's done that successfully. You might ask, "How did you feel before your first soccer practice last year when you barely knew anyone on the team?" followed by, "And how did you feel after that first week?" That reminder of his own proven abilities will be significantly more reassuring than any magic words from you.

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