Anxiety is a way we humans have evolved to protect ourselves.
In threatening situations, our brains release a string of responses that result in rapid heart rate, sweating, trembling, hyperventilating, and intense fear – all geared to prepare us for danger. This is the foundation for appropriate and adaptive anxiety.
But when this kind of “danger” response happens enough to significantly interfere with a child or teen’s social, academic, or recreational functioning, we call it a psychiatric disorder. Still, there are examples of when anxiety is not listed as an official disorder but can be disruptive for everyday life.
Let’s look at what has been called “situational anxiety.”
What Is Situational Anxiety?
Situational anxiety is a normal reaction to an adverse event in our lives. It’s typically unexpected or shocking or creates sudden hardship or excessive worrying about how it might negatively affect our lives. It’s often tied to feeling out of control. It can affect our kids – interrupting their busy schedules, and impairing their sleep, exercise, academics, and social life.
Some examples that send shock waves through our kids include natural disasters ( hurricanes, mudslides, forest fires), public health crises, mass shootings , cyberbullying, or sudden death or a loss.
How Will I Recognize Situational Anxiety in My Child or Teen?
In general, anxiety may present with one or more of the following symptoms.
These are symptoms of panic attacks, that may be observable:
- Rapid heart rate
- Hyperventilation and shortness of breath
- Dizziness or fainting
Kids may also reveal other signs of anxiety:
- Irritability or temper tantrums in younger kids
- Poor appetite
- Poor sleep
- Physical complaints: headaches, stomach aches, chest pain
- Reduced verbal responsiveness
- Expressions of worry
With situational anxiety, you likely will also notice a rather sudden change in behavior. Your child may behave in ways that are “out of character.”
8 Parent Tips To Help Children And Teens Cope With Situational Anxiety
Here is some guidance for parents to consider:
1. If the Situation Also Affects You, Take Care of Yourself
We are all shaken by sudden, unexpected, and at times devastating news events. Many people are profoundly concerned about climate change, natural disasters, or mass shootings. Remember that anxiety is “contagious,” and your kids will pick up on your emotional reactions. The most effective way to help them is to stay calm yourself. Here are some ways you can help diminish your own anxiety:
- Talk with supporters, such as a spouse, partner, friend, or relative. Talking about your worries is a great way to decrease anxiety.
- Take care of your physical health, including getting restful sleep and exercise.
- Use the methods you have found most helpful for reducing your own anxiety, such as yoga, meditation, prayer, listening to music, reading, journaling, or watching a good TV show.
2. Initiate Conversations
Many times, your child will not approach you with their anxiety or concerns. This may be because they feel ashamed, worried that talking will make things worse, or that they will burden you. If you notice a change in your child’s behavior, there is no harm in saying: “I’ve noticed you haven’t been yourself, lately. Is anything troubling you?” Then, follow with open-ended questions – ones that let them respond with more than just “Yes,” “No,” or “Nothing.” The point of open-ended questions is to get more details that allow you to explore what’s going on. Examples include:
- What are you worried about?
- Can you tell me about your concerns?
- How are you feeling?