Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety
By Kristi Coppa - Founder, Wondergrade
As parents, it’s our job to look at our childhoods, choose the best parts to bring to our parenting practices, and intentionally change what caused us pain. The part of my childhood that I most wanted to change for my daughters was my experience with anxiety.
In retrospect, my anxiety as a child was pretty straightforward. I was worried constantly. I had frequent stomach aches. I couldn’t go to sleepovers and had difficulty concentrating in school. My family didn’t want to acknowledge that I had a problem. My parents dismissed it, thinking it was a phase. My sisters teased me. I learned to pretend I was okay when I was not okay.
As an adult, I sought treatment and began taking medication. For a while, things felt more manageable. However, after the birth of my daughter, postpartum anxiety and sleep deprivation made my anxiety return to full force. It took some work, but again, I sought treatment and slowly began to feel like myself.
It took years, but eventually, I accepted that my generalized anxiety disorder was not my fault. It’s something I was born with. I could heal. However, when it became clear that it was also something I passed on to my daughter, a whole new healing journey began.
Anxiety in Kids
After years of therapy and personal work, I was deeply familiar with how anxiety showed up in my life. However, when my oldest daughter turned four and began struggling with worries, complaining of stomach aches, and having frequent nightmares, it took a bit for me to sort out what was happening. Even though I had lived through her experience as a child, I still was hesitant and felt unequipped to recognize what was going on and help her cope.
My husband and I consulted our pediatrician, who helped us pinpoint the signs of stress she was showing. My daughter was struggling with anxiety, just as I had as a child.
Through our journey, I found out that we were not alone in our struggle to identify what was going on behind our daughter’s meltdowns and fears. It can be challenging, we learned, for parents to recognize signs of anxiety in their kids, even those who are highly engaged.
One reason for this is that anxiety and stress can appear differently in kids than in adults. Where adults often have somatic complaints like headaches, muscle tension, heartburn, or indigestion, are unable to sleep or concentrate, or feel frazzled when stressed, kids can show stress in new, surprising ways. Kids might show increased activity, appear hyperactive, or develop new physical “quirks” like hair twirling, thumb-sucking, nail-biting, or nose-picking. They might start clinging or needing more attention than usual or develop sudden fears like the dark, strangers, or monsters.
The unusual way kids can show stress, coupled with a limited vocabulary for talking about their emotions, make it extremely difficult to recognize anxiety in kids.
In our case, we had expert guidance to help us see how our child was struggling and get her help right away. We started to see a change in her by getting my daughter in therapy, learning to manage our own emotions and expectations as parents, and finding age-appropriate resources to help her cope.
My daughter is not alone in her struggle with anxiety. In fact, with the constant changes brought on by the ongoing pandemic, stress, and anxiety in kids is at an all-time high. The good news is that, as a society, we are also more willing to acknowledge and talk about anxiety in kids. More kid-friendly resources are available, and more helping professionals are equipping parents with ways to help our kids cope in healthy ways.
Tools to Help
Apps like Wondergrade, which I founded due to seeing my daughter struggle and wanting to increase the accessibility of these resources for all parents, help kids as young as 3 learn healthy calm-down skills in a fun and playful way. Even apps and resources initially intended for adults, like Headspace and Insight Timer, now include sections for kids. New kid-friendly products like weighted stuffed animals, and calm down stickers are in the market so kids have resources to turn to in difficult times. We are doing better as a community, and it shows.
(Recommended: Seven Everyday Ways to Use Weighted Objects for Better Moods)
Unlike my childhood, when I thought I had to “get over” my feelings of fear and sadness, parents of my generation can help their kids learn to cope. We can teach our kids to feel their feelings, acknowledge them, and self-regulate to let go of unproductive forms of anxiety, creating a space for the peace and calm many of us never felt as children.
We have the power to give our children the tools to make them resilient, regulated, and mentally strong every day of their lives. We can’t make everything bad go away, but we can teach children that they can weather it when stress happens.
Read next: I was Diagnosed with ADHD at 40 and it Changed my Life - and my Work