From the moment babies are born, and as infants, toddlers, and young children, their brains are being shaped by the many people, experiences, and objects they encounter every day. For infants, toddlers, and young children alike, everything is new, and they are experiencing wonder, awe, joy, and—sometimes—anxiety.
Not only is anxiety the most common mental health issue in kids, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, but children as young as toddlers can exhibit symptoms of anxiety.
“In the same way that all adults have mental health, all infants have mental health,” says Jessica Williams, senior director of programs and services at Catholic Family Service, a local organization committed to building strong families. “Because of all the brain development that’s happening, they’re vulnerable, so we can’t take our foot off the gas at all when it comes to nurturing an infant or toddler’s mental health.”
Some experiences in the early years can adversely impact a child’s mental health, and prevent them from developing at the same rate as their peers: “Adverse experiences actually change our brains and can make us more vulnerable to health problems as we get older,” says Nicole Sherren, scientific director and senior program officer at the Palix Foundation. Poverty, abuse, domestic violence, exposure to mental illness or addiction, and the inability of a parent or caregiver to provide proper care can have an impact on a child’s development.
“Children can be predisposed to anxiety if they live in a household with parents who are highly anxious,” says registered social worker and counsellor Diana Izard, who works with young children and families at the Calgary Counselling Centre. “Children are emotionally sensitive beings and can pick up on it. That could lead them to have more hypervigilance or an anxious response, but that is not always the case.”
That is not to say that anxiety is always problematic; on the contrary, it can be helpful and even healthy sometimes (in children and adults alike). It tells us that we’re aware of our surroundings and we care about our safety. But there is a point where it becomes worrisome. Sometimes it can be tricky to know where the line is, and how to differentiate concerning behaviour from what could be considered typical childhood behaviour. Izard believes that when children are displaying behaviours that might impact their ability to function at home, daycare, or in the community, there might be a problem.
“When we’re talking about children’s mental health and early onset, it’s important to look at behaviours,” Izard says. She explains this is a key indicator because young children aren’t in a place developmentally or cognitively where they’re able to talk about their problems. It’s up to parents and caregivers to recognize behavioural cues, which may be seen in things like changes in mood, sleep, eating, or aggression towards themselves or others, including self-harm. Self-harm in young children could present differently than self-harm in older kids, and might look like repetitive or obsessive head banging, scratching, picking, or pulling hair. “That behaviour comes out because children lack the ability to express themselves with words, so they’re just finding other ways to soothe.”
If left unaddressed, anxiety may create implications on childrens’ success in kindergarten and in the long term.
“The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is in charge of important skills for kids to succeed in school, can’t function properly if a child is in a constant state of stress,” says Cynthia Tonet, director of Catholic Family Service programs at Louise Dean Centre, a high school that provides a holistic approach to fully support pregnant and parenting teenagers. “If children are living with stress every day, every hour, it’s a challenge for them to sit down in a classroom and read or do math.”
There’s also the social element: anxiety and stress make it difficult for kids to take turns, plan ahead, control their impulses, and overall develop healthy and trust-based relationships. And as they get older, if untreated, anxiety can cause kids to miss school or engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance use.
So how can parents and caregivers help manage their child’s mental health and development leading up to school and beyond?
“If we want to do more for kids, we have to do more for their parents,” says Williams. “We want to make sure that a child has a strong, healthy, connected relationship with the most important people in their lives, which are their parents and caregivers.” She points out that parenting is a “hard gig,” and even more so for parents who are dealing with additional challenges like early pregnancy, poverty, or transitioning as a newcomer to Canada.
Claire Aries, a provisional psychologist at carya, says, “Parents can play a role in soothing and comforting an anxious child. Statements such as, ‘I’m here with you,’ ‘you’re safe,’ or ‘let’s do something to help you feel better together’ have proven helpful in relieving anxiety in children.”
To help children cope with anxiety when they’re away from home, Aries suggests, “Parents can try some of the following: worry rocks, where a child has a special rock in their pocket they can rub whenever they feel anxious; deep breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth; or sending the child to school with something special that will help them think of you—some parents have found pictures helpful.”
More tips for parents to assist in a child’s healthy development from Izard’s perspective:
- Be available as a caregiver—this might mean getting support to enhance your own mental health or meet your basic needs.
- Strengthen your bond with your child by being fully attentive. Take time out of every day to be with them, whether that means going for a car ride, making tea together, kicking around a ball, or folding laundry (bonus: this also helps them develop motor skills).
- Don’t feed into childrens’ worries, and encourage them to face their fears. Children should know that it’s safe to explore, but also that you will always be there to support them.
- Help your anxious child prepare for new activities or changes to routine. Talk to them in advance about expectations and make a plan together in case they begin to feel overwhelmed.
- Find ways to relax together like blowing bubbles, giving massages, or listening to calming music at bedtime.
- If issues arise, seek out a pediatrician who is experienced in child development, or try counselling. Family counselling is an option, and individual therapy can be considered for children as young as two years.
Other options include accessing evidenced-based support and programming that is accessible right in the community such as Bowmont Families Together, the Family Centre for Inner City Communities, and the Worry Warriors group for children, all available through carya, to assist in parenting a child with anxiety. “Parents don’t need to journey alone,” says Susan Herman, director at carya.