March 17, 2019

Children with Anxiety and My Thoughts on How Parents Can Help

I want to preface this post by saying that I am in no way a legal therapist, doctor, social worker, or any other professional that deals with mental health. I am, however, a 37-year old wife and mother (to two teen boys) who has generalized anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder. My mental illnesses started when I was very young, so I know what it is like to have these issues as a child.

I also want to point out that I may write things about my family that are in no way meant to be harmful or accusatory. My family is very caring and loving, and I know my parents did a great job raising me. Mental health wasn't talked about as much then as it is now. There are a few things I will mention that may bring up points about my childhood, but my family has been super supportive in several ways over the years, and I am so grateful for that!

Recently, I got an email from a mom who was worried about her middle school-aged daughter who was showing signs of severe anxiety. She was wondering what, based on my experiences, she could do to help with her daughter's anxiety. I am always happy to help whenever I can when it comes to mental illness (I really wish I had the money and motivation to go back to school and get a masters in social work so I could be a therapist--in all honesty, I think I'd be good at it. Even my own therapist suggested it)

Kids have anxiety for all sorts of reasons, and most of the time it's probably temporary. Maybe they are very worried about a test coming up at school, and they get stomaches because of it. But in a small minority of kids, it can be caused from generalized anxiety disorder (which is basically a constant state of worry without knowing why and without a real "ending").

And a lot of times, they could worry about things that we adults find irrational--someone coming and kidnapping them in the middle of the night; one of their parents dying suddenly; a car crash; the house burning down in the middle of the night.

When I was a child, I remember worrying about my dog, Penny, dying. I would wake up in the night and just cry and cry, worrying about Penny. I worried about fires starting in my house. I worried that I was doing something "wrong" (i.e. "unchristian-like") because my parents are very religious. I remember going skinny dipping with my friend Sarah in her pool one night (we were probably 9 or 10 years old) and afterward, I felt a horrible sense of guilt. We were innocent kids, doing nothing wrong, but I carried that guilt around with me for YEARS.

My anxiety started very young. I remember worrying about money (my mom didn't talk about it to us kids, but I would overhear things here and there), so I never liked to ask her to buy me "cool" clothes; I just wore the mom-like jeans from the ladies section (Bill Blass and Chic come to mind!).

While my siblings always asked my parents for "allowance", I didn't take money unless it was offered. I babysat to earn my own money. (I do have a memory of my mom taking me shopping to some of the mall stores we didn't normally go to, and she let me buy a couple of outfits for high school--the "cool" clothes--which was fun.)

My parents didn't know that depression or bipolar was a possibility for me. Mental illness wasn't really talked about much back then. They did the best they could with my moods, and thankfully, I had a good childhood with lots of great memories. However, knowing what I know now, I think that the validation of my feelings was absent a lot of the time. (I'm guilty of this with my own kids; I didn't really learn much about it until my therapist told me about it a couple of years ago.)

If you don't read anything else in this post, please take the time to read about validation. While this isn't something I learned until I was in therapy myself, it was a huge "aha!" moment for me, and I think it's something that everyone needs to learn.

Again, I am not trying to throw my family under the bus, but I don't think that my feelings were validated when I was a kid. For example, when I would cry about thinking my dog would die in the middle of the night, someone would tell me that I was just being dramatic, because the dog was fine. A better response would have been:

"That must be a really scary thought--I know you love Penny so much and so do we. Thankfully, Penny is doing just fine right now, and we take her to the vet to get checked out. The doctor says she's healthy. I think Penny is going to live a long and happy life. So, while it's scary to think about stuff like that, I don't think it's something we have to worry about for a long time."

My first dog, Penny:

Considering I was very different from my family growing up, a lot of the things I was worried about must have seemed irrational. And it's easy for adults (or older kids) to see those as irrational and think that I was "being dramatic" or "too sensitive" or "difficult". (To this day those three words--dramatic, sensitive, and difficult--are a big trigger for me. They make me feel like my feelings are invalid.)

To validate someone's feelings doesn't mean that you have to agree with them. It just means that they want to be heard and not dismissed like their opinion or worries don't matter or that they are just being "difficult".

I can't stress enough how much the simple act of validating someone's feelings can make a world of difference for them. It will build self esteem and make them feel more worthy.

Something that I still have a hard time with when it comes to my own kids when they are feeling anxious is that I want to tell them, "You have nothing to worry about! It will be fine!". Whether it's a trip to the dentist, or taking a test, or a cross country race. While those worries may seem kind of ridiculous enough to us, they are vey real worries for our kids--and we have to acknowledge that.

Noah always tells me he's nervous about a test a school. So instead of saying, "Don't worry about it, you'll do fine!" I say something like, "I know that tests are nerve-wracking, and I used to get that way all the time, too. Tests are scary! But you studied hard, and I know you'll do your best, so I have faith that you're going to do great."

Validating feelings takes some work. It takes more effort and focus, but it will honestly make a world of difference in not just kids, but adults as well. (I wrote more about that in this post).

Moving on...

Another thing that we can do to help is to not show anxiety in front of our kids (SO much easier said than done!). A good example of this is with my family (yet again). When my kids were toddlers, and my mom was watching them, she would gasp when they would fall down or bump into something. I found myself doing that as a parent as well. And I still find it hard not to when I babysit Luke and Riley!

When I watch my brother, Brian, and his wife, Becky, with my niece and nephew, they are the most CHILL parents ever, and so are their kids! When Luke falls down, they don't gasp or ask if he's okay. They pretend nothing happened and he just stands up and keeps moving. They let him live and learn, and because of that, he never freaks out. When they drop the kids off here and say goodbye, they don't make a big deal of it--just a kiss and a "see you later!" and Luke doesn't cry or have separation anxiety. I really wish I'd known all this when my kids were little!

Kids will feed off of our "chillness" or our "anxiety"--whatever vibes we put off. When kids have fears or they worry about things that we think are irrational, it's important for us to realize that they aren't "just being dramatic" or "too sensitive" or "difficult". (Three words I avoid like the plague when it comes to my kids. Even though it's very hard sometimes not to use those words!)

See? Not dramatic at all ;)

My kids still see my anxiety quite a bit, because it's difficult to hide, but they are old enough now that I've explained mental illness and bipolar (and generalized anxiety disorder) to them so they do understand. However, I've done much better since I started validating their feelings.

Something else that may help: Eli dealt with severe anxiety for just a few months a couple of years ago, and I was VERY worried about him. He was upset, crying himself to sleep every night with worry that seemed to come out of nowhere. I ended up buying a roller ball of essential oils from Amazon (one that has lavender, which is supposed to help with calming).

He kept it with him at all times and rolled it on his temples. Maybe it was a placebo effect, but he swears it helped. I even bought him a lavender spray for his pillow at night so that he'd be able to sleep better. He liked that and he told me it was working. Whether it was a placebo effect or not, it helped him, so I am grateful!

Then his school said that he wasn't allowed to bring the little roller ball (literally the size of chapstick) to school because it's considered "medication"--how stupid is that?! So, I bought a special bracelet and we would put some of the oils on that before school and he could smell it that way. He swears that it helped him so much.

Now, I'm happy to say that Eli's anxiety just went away like it was a phase he was going though. Recently, he saw me very upset because I was feeling so anxious, and he brought me his bottle of lavender mist for my pillow (he's seriously the sweetest kid ever!)

Having a child with anxiety or depression is heartbreaking! You want to make it better so badly, but there is nothing you can really do to take it all away. It definitely helps to listen; to validate their feelings; to remain calm ourselves; and possibly find a way like the essential oils to help for an immediate fix.

Like you all know, I'm not a doctor or mental health professional, so all I wrote here was my advice from my own experiences. If your child is showing signs of a severe issue with anxiety, it never hurts to see a therapist or psychiatrist. (You can read about what to expect at a first psych appointment here).

And I found this graphic on Pinterest (I'm not sure where it originated) but I thought it might be helpful in recognizing signs of chronic anxiety...

We all do our best to raise our kids to be happy and healthy, and I think mental health is just as important as physical health. I hope that this post is helpful!


  1. Thank you!! Some great insight here for us as parents...and humans! The pics of you as a kiddo... adorable!!

  2. Great post, Katie! I also wanted to add in that it's important to have your child's thyroid checked if your child is experiencing anxiety or depression. My daughter had extreme anxiety and depression starting around age 2 and it took about five years for us to figure out that she has hashimoto's. A normal thyroid tsh is between 0-4 and her tsh was almost 200 when she finally got diagnosed. The doctors didn't catch it, despite two hospitalizations and multiple doctor visits. Finally I was at the end of my rope and would not stop until I got some answers. She now takes a full replacement dose of thyroid hormone and sees a pediatric endocrinologist. She is nine years old now and doing great! All her anxiety and depression is gone. So I think it's important to look at the physical causes of some of these issues, including diet, autoimmune disease, etc.

    1. The same thing happened to me, Erika but as a teenager. My parents were told that I was a drug addict or had an eating disorder and I was "Just a teeneager" Thank god my mother was like you and would not take that crap for an answer.

  3. Thank you for sharing! Great insights!

  4. Thank you, very good thoughts!

  5. Thanks for this post Katie!! Excellent as always.

  6. Per usual, spot-on with excellent parenting advice. I, too, need to get better at validating my teen's feelings, thanks for the reminder. BTW, you were the cutest toddler ever! P.S. I wish we were neighbors, we could have "therapy" sessions all day long!

  7. Excellent post! I would add that it’s super important not to avoid things or situations that cause anxious distress, but rather to work in tolerating the distress. Validate and encourage emotional expression, look for and use tools to cope (love the lavender roller ball! We use Bach’s Rescue Remedy pastilles) and keep moving on. Too much attention on it just makes it grow. Thanks for all the mental health postings.

  8. Hi, Katie! Long-time lurker, and I love this post. I wanted to share a blog post I saw in a FB group I subscribe to. It crystallized how I feel about validating kids' emotions. I'm a mom to an amazing 12-year-old, and I also teach middle school. In my 13 years of teaching, I've realized that most of us adults listen merely to dismiss concerns, rather than to *HEAR* them. Listening--really listening--to kids is a total gift to them, and they know the difference.


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