Managing Big Feelings and Anxiety: A Message from Dr. Newman

The most frequent questions I have been receiving wearing my child psychologist hat over the last several months have been about helping kids of all ages manage anxiety. Many of our RESPECT programs help kids deal with big feelings in general and anxiety is certainly included in the category of BIG feelings. But here are some more specific things I think are helpful to know and consider:

  1. Anxiety is a natural human emotion. It is partly learned, partly biological and when kids ask me if it “runs in families?” I say yes! Kids learn how to emotionally respond when challenged with problems and stressors from watching the people in their lives they love the most and that is certainly family – and they inherit all different types of attributes and risk factors from them as well!
  2. Without anxiety we probably would not get much done. Anxiety is motivating. With too much anxiety we would likely not get much done either because anxiety can stop us in our tracks, put us in a panic or result in indecision. The best thing is to be able to identify anxiety and learn to manage it rather than let it control us.
  3. Anxiety “looks” different as expressed by different people and by people of different ages. Anxiety is about worry and being uncertain of the future. Everyone has it – but if someone has too much of it, it lasts too long, happens too often or if it interferes with the quality of life (friendships, family, grades, etc.) then it might be an anxiety disorder that needs professional support.
  4. It helps to give kids words to connect their feelings (anxiety) with the behaviors they use to express them (hesitancy, irritability, stomachaches, tendencies to withdraw, etc.) and the situations that create the feelings. SITUATION>ANXIETY>BEHAVIOR For example, some kids become find themselves having problems presenting to larger groups of students and might not want to go to school on days those presentations are planned or might act out in an angry way with inappropriate language to someone because they are feeling irritable.
  5. Helping them understand the pattern gives them a way to understand what is happening to that they can take charge of what is happening that is likely causing them distress on multiple levels. A student could feel relieved that this is not about THEM but about a skill they need to learn, how to manage their anxiety in a group. They could learn different ways to handle the “situation” – practicing or talking with the teacher for example. They could learn more about anxiety through talking with the school counselor or with a family member who might experience anxiety. They could change the behavior they feel when they do experience anxiety, by doing a breathing exercise for example or by sharing with others how they are trying to overcome this personal challenge.
  6. Lots of times kids (and adults) just need someone to talk with and listen to them about their anxiety. They do not need someone to solve a specific problem. Support is always helpful, with guidance and shared problem solving. It helps kids to see that it can take a while to figure out ways to make an emotional situation better, but they will nearly always feel very good about what they have accomplished once they have done so!