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Childhood Anxiety, The Epidemic that Grew from the Pandemic

If we look around today at the kids, I am sorry to say it, but they are different. They are profoundly aware that there is something very wrong with the way Earth is today. So, if it seems that parenting has become just a bit more intense…you are not alone.

Children are not immune to the stress we are all under. In fact, the verities they rely on to give the world its order is completely gone. When they are emotionally distressed, they might revert to behaviors that seem inappropriate. I have witnessed the mental decline in my own children. The moodiness, the meltdowns, the crying, yep…all emotional distress.

While some of us like to pretend that stress is normal and that, “everyone gets anxious”, I am seeing an alarming rise in the number of anxious children in my office that do not have the skill set to cope.

In a culture that thrives on more and wears busy like a badge of honor, this collective traumatic experience that is 2020/2021 is just beginning to unfold in what looks like chronic stress disorders for all ages.

Some stress is normal, but waves of unprovoked panic in a 7-year old, means something is not quite right. Generally, when the Nervous System gets “triggered”, we set off the alarm for fight, flight, freeze or faint. It’s not always so easy to turn that alarm off.

In fact, we can create cycles in our own selves that continue this misfiring repeatedly, creating uncomfortable feeling in the body. Sweating, racing heartbeat, feelings of unreality, numbness and tingling, dizziness, shortness of breath and feelings of very serious dread.

Children’s brains are very vulnerable to emotions, and many things are a very big deal to them. Here is where we model calm, we validate, empathize and co regulate, leaning into their big emotions. It’s worth a mention, that if you yourself are dealing with anxiety, work towards transforming your own anxiety so that you are not transferring it to your child. You are not alone, we are living in scary times, and that’s just what it is.

It is extremely difficult as a parent to watch your child suffer through this very turbulent emotional state, but there is help available in many forms, and the better we co regulate, the more prepared we will be. Remember to breathe.

Symptoms of anxiety in children are: inability to concentrate, not sleeping well or having bad dreams, quickly agitated, angry or violent, negative or worrying thoughts, tummy aches, head aches or feeling sick, clingy, crying, fidgety, fussy, using the bathroom more than usual. Some of this is run of the mill, but some of it deserves a bit of attention. It’s up to you to decide what needs more attention.

40 million people have diagnosed anxiety disorders, and the numbers are growing every day. My best advice for you and your children is to work with it instead of against it. I know how terrible anxiety and panic feels, believe me, I do, so when I say work with it, it by no account means to accept these uncomfortable feelings as life. It means regulate, gain skills and find your peace. #workinprogress

I find that if you have a daily schedule with emotional intelligence built into it, it will be easier to regulate should anxiety rear its head unexpectedly. Examples would be, morning meditation, intention setting, affirmation talk, etc.

A meltdown or panic attack is not an easy time to teach any skill, (neuroscience). The brain must be integrated to learn. The prefrontal cortex, cortex, limbic system, brain stem and nervous system must be working together to remain integrated, if not, we are just in dysregulation, making it more difficult.

You can practice daily mindfulness exercises, or breathing techniques, talk about emotions, and body sensations and learn the language of the brain and it's functions. This all takes practice for sure. Baby steps, day by day.

Tools for Dealing with Anxiety

Realize and accept that you are in panic mode. Your brain is not integrated and you will begin to start a repair process to feel better. Sit in that very uncomfortable space and let it work its way up and out. I know it is not fun. Breathe…this will all be very difficult to do, but do try.

Take 3 deep slow breaths, acknowledging what you are feeling. You can say out loud, or tell your child to let people know, “I am feeling very anxious, I need some space to breathe, will you sit with me until it passes”. You can even print your littles a card to hand out to their trusted adults if the, “body feels funny” which is what kids say when they are anxious. The card is a great idea, since your child may not be able to communicate in an anxious state, “the freeze” portion of panic.

Look around the space you are in.

Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste.

Write them if you need to, but do distract your brain a bit from the terror you feel inside. Breath again, long and slow, see your belly rise and fall.

I recommend the book Breathe Like a Bear for every household with children for your morning routine.

There is an amazing cranial nerve called the vagus nerve in our bodies. It runs all the way from our brain to our belly and touches different organs on the way.

This awesome nerve can support you in a time of anxiety because it has a direct impact on our parasympathic nervous system which can make you feel rested or relaxed. You can try to hum or sing loudly to strengthen the vagus nerve, drink cold water, or even try some closed eye exercises to bring on the Zen. Think Ommmmmmmmmmmm, that throat hum is what we are going for here.

An experience with anxiety is a reminder that something is not quite right around you. Real or perceived fear can trigger these uncomfortable moments and it is a good time to really practice self-compassion, give some extra hugs and really think about how to best serve your body.

If you see your child is anxious, change the scenery, go for a walk, offer some cold water, sing songs, skip, hug, talk.

There are also some herbal remedies you and your children can take safely to help relieve these moments.

Standard Process chewable Inositol is great for intrusive thoughts or looping behaviors, fish oil is a brain supplement that helps my children keep focused and in the moment. I also like L-Theanine, an amino acid that promotes feelings of calm, L-theanine is the precursor to L-tryptophan, the amino acid in turkey that makes you sleepy. People have mentioned Brillia to me, but I have no experience with it.

Diet overall can have a huge impact on mood. I always suggest cutting out items like gluten or dairy, getting rid of all artificial colors and flavored foods, adding more protein and water to drink, introducing gut foods and making sure you are eating enough veggies. I recommend a multivitamin for children and usually some sort of smoothie to pack in the nutrients during the day.

If we are indeed stuck in a pattern of chronic stress, we should at least have some tools in our tool boxes to get through it.

The takeaway:

It’s okay not to be okay from time to time. We can learn to sit with our uncomfortable emotions, knowing they are transient, and they will pass. There is something empowering about walking through the other side of a panic attack, knowing you were able to sit with it and release it.

Remember the food and mood connection, chemically processed foods trigger anxiety.

Lean into big emotions, we are not trying to get rid of, mask, or control anything here, we are just simply being present with them, soothing our body and mind with gentleness and breathing.

Create a “Time In” room or space in your home to open up discussions around emotions. I recommend books like, My Magic Breath and Mindfulness for Kids Who Worry. Also guided meditations exercises for positive self-talk, Generation Kindful has a free MP3 recording for wake up and wind down

Having real conversations around emotional health is a way to make you and your child more comfortable with mental health, the brain, the body and the mind! In our program, we start talking about the brain anatomy and function in Kindergarten, so it’s never too early to start!

Wishing you breath, peace and love today and every day.

Love Always in All Ways, Cheryl

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