How to know if your preschooler is struggling with anxiety

While some stress over being apart from a parent is normal, here's what to do when this anxiety is affecting your kid's day-to-day life.

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When *Lizzie Dawe’s three and a half year old daughter started to experience a near constant stomach ache, her first instinct was to take her to the pediatrician. After trying an elimination diet (which yielded no changes) and noticing she was also suddenly having difficulty falling and staying asleep, she started to suspect that something bigger was going on. Next, came the intense separation anxiety.

“I knew it wasn’t normal because she would launch into a full-fledged, red-faced screamfest at even the thought of leaving my side to go to the bathroom or retrieve a toy from the other side of the room,” said Dawe. “It was as though she was consumed by fear.”

While some stress over being apart from a parent or loved one is normal in preschool-aged kids, Dawe was concerned that this anxiety was affecting her daughter’s day to day life.

Picture of a girl with half her face hidden How to tell if your child is shy or if it's actually anxiety“It is normal for children to have worries about starting new things and entering new situations,” says Amanda Zaidman, a licensed clinical social worker and owner of Constructive Parenting. “They may wonder whether their teacher will be nice or whether they will make friends in their new classroom as they transition from their summer routines back to school.” The problem arises when those fears turn into behaviours that are disruptive to a child’s life. That’s when parents should investigate whether their little one may be suffering from something more serious.

“When thinking about normal worries versus anxiety, the key is to consider the severity of your child’s behaviours and how those behaviours are impacting his or her ability to enjoy their life,” says Zaidman. Parents should look out for behaviours like clinginess to the point of not being able to separate, crying at the drop of a hat or for long, extended periods of time, trouble falling or staying asleep in the night when they were previously a good sleeper, struggling with things they had previously mastered or regressing in areas, like potty-training.

How to help a kid with anxiety

Zaidman suggests some calm and sensitive soothing. “Even though you might be feeling triggered yourself by your child’s upset feelings, work hard to find your own calm and then take him into your arms and speak to him softly until he starts to settle,” says Zaidman. “Name the feeling your child is having and the situation that caused it. When children feel understood they start to settle.”

Kevin Gyoerkoe, a psychologist at the Anxiety and OCD Treatment Center in North Carolina explains that most professionals will focus on helping both the child and the parents learn to respond to fears in the moment and how to reduce those fears over time. “Developing coping thoughts in early childhood can help as the child grows and faces new challenges and new situations,” he says.

First, Gyoerkoe suggests parents identify the specific sources of the anxiety. For example, if a child is anxious about using the bathroom alone, parents should acknowledge the anxiety, saying something like, “I know that you are anxious that something bad might happen if you are alone in the bathroom.” Next, he suggests parents offer reassurance by saying something like, “Nothing bad has happened when you’ve gone alone before and I will be right outside the door.”

“We help them identify and challenge anxiety producing thoughts by examining the evidence for such a thought, developing a plan, and even decatastrophizing the fear itself,” says Gyoerkoe.

*Emily Pace, first noticed that her then three-year-old daughter was suffering from anxiety when she began avoiding using the bathroom and panicking anytime she needed to go. Pace leaned on the expertise of a relative who works in education and her own parental intuition to develop ways to help her daughter cope. “After we get through a tough situation, we write a note to herself,” says Pace. “Together we tell the whole story of what happened, so that the next time we’re in that situation, we can read the note. She finds comfort in listening to her own words more than mine.”

Another helpful strategy is ensuring your kid’s home life is predictable. “Healthy routines play an important role in helping kids work through anxiety,” says Katie Hurley, a licensed clinical social worker and author of The Happy Kid Handbook. “Parents should think about the basics: preschool children need 12 to14 hours of sleep, balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals, water, playtime, and downtime. That might sound simple, but sometimes these basics are overlooked when life gets busy.”

Dawe’s daughter, now five, is still fearful of new situations, but the separation anxiety and panicky behavior has improved. Instead of bottling up her feelings, she now knows how to talk about them with her caregivers, who have also learned the importance of talking through fears and helping her develop coping thoughts. “It isn’t easy,” says Dawe, “but therapy has made a big difference.”

“A huge tool for us has been naming and identifying what’s happening,” says Pace, whose daughter is now seven. “Because anxiety thrives in the shadows.”

*Some names have been changed

Read more:
Anxiety in girls is skyrocketing—are our expectations to blame?
Parents are missing work to help their kids’ anxiety-and it’s costing millions

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