Childhood Anxiety: Helping Preschoolers
Earlier last month at Joshua Early Childhood Center, clinical psychologist Brian Wolff, presented on childhood anxiety to our preschool parents. It was interesting to break down exactly what anxiety is and how we, as the adults, can help our young children!
The holiday season can certainly be a time when we see some anxious behaviors emerge. Routines are changed, you may have travel plans to new places, unfamiliar visitors over to the house. There are a lot of new and different experiences that can be a little scary, especially to our preschoolers that are developing their social-emotional skills!
To help prepare for the holidays, we wanted to provide you all a follow up Q&A we had with Brian Wolff:
1. What is your relationship with Joshua Early Childhood Center?
"I have worked with The Joshua School and its students and families since my practice started in 2011. My work has included facilitating multiple parent nights, primarily on the topics of anxiety and coping, and running teacher trainings on the assessment of children’s adaptive skills. Within my practice, we have also worked with individual children and families at The Joshua School, including The Early Childhood Center, both for therapy as well as psycho-educational and neuropsychological evaluation."
2. How common is anxiety in preschoolers?
"Very! Let’s remember – anxiety is a normal human experience, especially for preschool-age children who are still learning how to separate from their parents, face big and scary-feeling emotions, and make sense of new experiences. For the most part, as parents we simply need to be there for our children when they are distressed, maintaining a balance of a nurturing and validating attitude along with clear expectations and limits. Developing a true anxiety disorder in childhood, however, occurs in only 10-20% of the population. That said, anxiety disorders are the most common of all diagnosable psychological conditions experienced by young children."
3. What advice do you have for parents that may be worried about their child’s anxiety?
"First, remember that much of childhood anxiety is normal and to be expected developmentally. So, simply watching your child experience anxiety is normal, despite it feeling distressing to you as the parent. Further, anxiety has a very strong genetic component, so even if you respond very well to your child’s anxiety most of the time, some kids are just more prone to experiencing anxiety and may need more frequent reminders that they can be brave and face their fears successfully. Ultimately, much of the work as parents is to a) help your child weather the storm of anxiety, fear, and worry, and b) prevent your child from engaging in avoidance strategies.
The #1 rule of handling anxiety is to face it had on rather than avoid it, as avoidance rapidly teaches the mind and body that the stressor is too much to handle. While facing one’s anxieties can be distressing in the moment, our minds and bodies can be taught to handle pretty much any stressor. While knowing this principle, perhaps along with the support of basic parenting books, can be enough for many parents to provide appropriate support for their child, many children and families need professional support to guide them through this process more effectively."
4. What’s the best go-to strategy that a parent can use in the moment to help ease their child’s anxiety within a certain situation?
"If you are in that moment of panic and terror, the goal is to weather the storm. As you know from past experience, most kids in most situations of anxiety really cannot process verbal information. In fact, your efforts to talk your child down, bribe your way out of it, and/or explain rationally why what happened is “not a big deal,” often worsen and prolong the situation. You may also have found that allowing the child to avoid the stressor may temporarily stop the negative behavior; however, in doing so, the child’s fear will actually be strengthened, making future encounter with the stressor more intense. Further, kids learn quickly how to keep avoiding distressing things. So, unfortunately for you, the best move is usually to hang in there, comfort the child without allowing him to avoid the stressor, and wait until the storm has passed before engaging verbally. Again, if you find yourself in this situation frequently and find it very hard to handle your own emotions and reactions, it probably is time to seek professional support."
5. When should a parent seek additional support if they are concerned with their child’s anxiety?
"Psychologists often think about duration, frequency, and intensity of emotions and behaviors. As a parent, you can likely trust your gut as to when your child’s anxiety has been going on for too long, happens too often, or has become too intense. Further, if you notice your child has become increasingly avoidant of experiences that may trigger his anxiety, this too is a sign of increasingly intense anxiety. These are the moments to call a professional who can help you and your child learn to better tolerate his or her distress and practice strategies for engaging with, rather than avoiding, anxiety-provoking situations."
Thank you Brian Wolff for sharing your time and knowledge with us!
JECC wishes everyone a happy, healthy and hopefully calm holiday!