Anxiety & Nervousness in Children
Dr. McCarthy shares her insights into child anxiety and nervousness
Back-to-school time is a charged time of year for many kids and families. Children feel a sense of excitement about the potential of a new year: learning about their teacher, discovering which friends will be in their class, sharing their summer experiences with friends and using brand new school supplies.
For some children, this excitement can be coupled with feelings of nervousness and anxiety. Starting at a new school, entering kindergarten or beginning full day grade one classes can cause some big feelings to emerge for small children. This transition is different for each child but sometimes, the feelings of anxiety last beyond the first days of school.
This was the case for our youngest child. The nervousness began at night before bed, emerged again as he was getting ready for school and escalated on the way to the building. Tears streamed down his face during the good-byes. Sensing his stress was emotional for us as parents also. At one point, in the midst of a tearful goodbye, our son was told that six-year old behavior was expected from him now that he was in grade one.
This was a very curious statement to me.
For one thing, equating the emotion of sadness or anxiety with behavior didn’t make sense. Secondly, I thought about all the adults I know who, at one time or another, suffer from anxious feelings. They are not told to act their adult age. In fact, there is more acceptance for the complexities of mental health conditions than ever before for adults.
Educators have our children’s best interest at heart. That has always been our experience. Teachers want children to learn and grow in a space where they are happy and at ease. However, to me, it is hard to imagine that my son (or any child) could be convinced to quickly detach from his favorite people at the beginning of each day by the motivation of acting properly. Mostly, my concern is that this subtle and unintentional shaming of emotion at an early age will cement into a child’s subconscious.
This could set individuals up for future feelings of insecurity when facing the inevitable tough emotions of teenage years and in adulthood.
Anxiety and nervousness are very common in children. It is very likely that your own child will experience these feelings to some degree at some point: separating from parents, starting a new school year, meeting new peers at school or activities, performance anxiety, fears of the dark or other things. Some children have more sensitive nervous systems and are more prone to these feelings than others.
Sometimes, the anxiety is hard to recognize; children don’t always communicate with tears and sadness when they are nervous. Some keep their feelings guarded inside themselves. Others act out with anger, aggressiveness, distractibility, obstinance and more.
Let’s acknowledge all strong feelings in children.
Help normalize them, strive to accept them, encourage the tears to flow, help kids name the feeling and help them move through them. This will serve them in years to come.
There are many little things that can be done in situations of anxiety, such as:
- Teach children abdominal breathing.
- Have them memorize a little mantra.
- Have your child carry something small of yours in their pocket while away from you.
- Stick a picture of your family in his/her lunchbox.
- Make sure your child knows when and where you’ll see them again.
- Have a routine for each difficult good-bye so they know what to expect.
- Spend quality one-on-one time with them after being apart.
It all helps.
The number one action we can do is to simply be with them, to love, to empathize, to be patient, to understand and to come alongside them and see the experience through their eyes. They are just beginning on their path and are in the early stages of learning resilience, managing stress and moving into independence.
For more detailed information and tips for separation anxiety (and other child development topics), refer to the respected Canadian-based developmental psychologist, Gordon Neufeld.
In addition, naturopathic medicine can play a role.
Certain remedies can help calm the nervous system. As well, other remedies can provide some calm at heightened times of panic or anxiety. Diet modifications can help contribute to a healthy mind. There are many naturopathic treatment options to help with sleep, if that is an issue.
Ultimately, our goal should be to have children understand that it’s okay to feel anxiety. It is our duty to also have the right strategies and techniques to move through the emotions. Only when a child is calm, can they then learn.
Dr. McCarthy is a passionate supporter of quality healthcare and often fights for those who may have been let down or feel “lost” in the current healthcare system.
- “The Essential Diet; Eating for Mental Health” (Available at on-line retailers (Chapters, Amazon) and at the Natural Terrain Naturopathic Clinic)