4 tips for managing anxiety in preschoolers

Anxiety in preschoolers is quite common. Here's how you can help your child express their worries and learn to cope.

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Three-year-old Eden isn’t a fan of the vacuum cleaner, but she takes great care to stay on its good side. “When it’s off, she’ll hug it and tell it she loves it,” says her mom, Suzanne Norton. “Then she’ll ask me to turn it on, but when I do, she books it to her room.”

Eden’s disliked any sort of loud blowing sound or white noise since she was about 18 months old. That’s when she first noticed the swooshing sound of the windshield wipers on her dad’s pickup truck. “She started freaking out whenever we had to turn them on,” says Norton.

Anxiety is a normal emotion, and while it’s not specific to the preschool years, it’s more noticeable then, explains Jen Theule, a registered psychologist and assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Manitoba. “Younger children are less able to articulate their worries,” she says, adding that they lack some of the cognitive skills to be afraid of abstract situations. Instead, they worry about things like separation, dogs, noises, darkness and weather.

Like adults, kids can experience physical symptoms of anxiety, like butterflies in the tummy, a racing heart or trembling. “Even though those fears may seem irrational to the parent, they are very real to the child,” says Janice Heard, spokesperson for the Canadian Paediatric Society and an assistant clinical professor in paediatrics at the University of Calgary.

So how can you help your little one manage her anxieties?

1. Take baby steps 
Most preschoolers eventually outgrow their fears, slowly learning to use logic to overrule their impulse to be scared, says Theule. Pushing your child to face her fears will undermine your relationship, she adds. Instead, Theule suggests helping your child get used to being around things that cause anxiety, taking a slow and gentle approach in little doses that feel comfortable.

If your kid is afraid of swimming at the big pool, for example, Heard suggests delaying lessons and focusing on getting comfortable. “Take your child to the rec centre and maybe take them into the change room and get them changed but don’t insist that they go in the water,” she says. It may take a few visits before a tiny toe even touches the water. Until then, let her soak up the fun with no pressure and be sure to give plenty of praise for all her brave new steps.

2. Use your words
Norton sometimes wonders what others must think when they’re at the mall and she’s helping Eden prepare for the sound of the hand dryer with a play-by-play of what other bathroom-users are doing. While the noise still makes Eden nervous, Norton says talking her through it makes a big difference.

A preschooler—particularly a younger one—may not always understand everything you say, but your soothing voice and the fact that you’re not worried is hugely reassuring, says Theule, adding that dismissing concerns makes kids think you haven’t understood the problem. Saying something like, “You don’t like that noise—it’s scary,” gives kids words they’ll eventually learn to apply to fears. “That label is very comforting,” says Theule. “It says, ‘This problem is time limited, it has a name, it doesn’t have to overwhelm me.’”

3. Lower your expectations
Often the biggest issue boils down to expectations. “Sometimes the modern world asks things of children that aren’t reasonable,” says Theule.

Take separation anxiety, for example. “Some kids can easily separate from their parents in the infant or toddler years, but it’s OK if your kid can’t until four or five—that’s still normal, too.” The same goes for sleeping in the dark—Theule says some kids might need a hallway light or night light as late as the middle-school years.

Certain kids are more prone to anxiety than others, but if your preschooler’s fears are so intense they’re preventing her from having a happy life, or if she has unusual anxieties like being afraid to leave the house or to interact with other kids, talk to your family doctor.

4. Expert tip
Young kids have limited coping skills, and when they’re upset they can lose them altogether. During anxious meltdowns, registered psychologist Jen Theule says it can helpful to imagine your child as a crying newborn and soothe him accordingly. Try singing, rubbing his back or rocking him.

A version of this article appeared in our April 2015 issue with the headline, “Fear factor,” p.60.

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