When a child struggles with anxiety, it can be difficult to know how serious it is and whether treatment is necessary. Many children – and adults – are reluctant to discuss their anxieties with other people. Many people with anxiety find ways to avoid their anxiety triggers without other people noticing or being negatively impacted. It can take a long time to notice a child’s avoidance patterns, and when we do notice, it can be difficult to decide how to respond. If you know a lot of parents whose kids regularly have trouble sleeping in their own beds, it can be hard to distinguish whether your child is asking to sleep in your room frequently enough to need treatment. If you have noticed that your child’s peers who were previously terrified of dogs seem to have eventually outgrown these fears, you may have trouble distinguishing whether your child needs treatment for their dog phobia or if maybe they just need a bit more time to outgrow it. In these types of situations, it can be helpful to talk with your pediatrician, a counselor at school, or other professionals who work with your child. They may be able to provide insights or ask clarifying questions that help you decide how to proceed.
In some cases, it is easier to see that your child might need professional support to overcome their anxiety-based challenges. When a child’s anxiety is causing them to avoid school or other activities outside of the home, child and family functioning tend to be so negatively affected that seeking treatment feels like the only option. See below for some treatment options for children who find themselves overwhelmed by anxiety.
- CBT: CBT, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is usually provided over a number of outpatient once-weekly psychotherapy sessions. In CBT treatment with a psychotherapist, a child who is struggling with anxiety might explore the thoughts and behaviors connected with their anxious feelings. CBT also focuses on building coping skills that will help children manage their fears and worries. You can read more about CBT here. Your pediatrician may be able to refer you to an outpatient therapist who practices CBT or may be able to provide information that will help you find CBT for your child.
- Meditation: A key component to anxiety is the physical symptoms that accompany it, commonly referred to as the “fight or flight response.” Heart rate increases and breathing becomes shallow. Stress hormones may cause acutely anxious people to sweat or shake. These physical symptoms, which can be uncomfortable or scary, can feed into a worsening cycle of anxious thoughts, emotions, and physical symptoms. Meditation practice can help a child learn how to calm the physical sensations and worried thoughts that go along with anxiety. There are many different ways to practice meditation. In general, meditation tends to focus on practicing deep breathing patterns and focusing the mind in the present moment. You may be able to introduce meditation to your child on your own, or you may want to find a professional, such as a psychotherapist, who is able to integrate meditation practice into therapy sessions. You can read more about meditation with children here.
- Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a type of treatment usually provided in a small number of outpatient sessions, in which sensors are placed on the patient’s body to track physical processes such as heart rate and breathing. Patients watch visual depictions of their physical responses on screens in the treatment room and learn to regulate their physical responses in real time. Biofeedback has been found helpful for treating anxiety, stress, headaches, and other conditions. You can read more about how the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin uses biofeedback here.
- Medication: Sometimes when children have severe anxiety or when their anxiety is combined with depression or other mental health disorders, providers will prescribe medication as one component of the treatment plan. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), a type of antidepressant medication, are sometimes prescribed for children and teens with severe anxiety. You can read a bit more about medication for the treatment of childhood anxiety here. If you think your child might benefit from any type of medication, please consult with your primary medical provider.