Navigating Anxiety in Children and Tweens: A Guide for Professionals

Sad teen girl on her phone

When an 8-year-old boy is overwhelmed by mounting pressure from teachers and parents to pass his 3rd grade reading assessment, he might have trouble sleeping or complain about stomachaches. He may be more irritable at home and talk back more. Or, maybe his parents will be troubled by a full-out tantrum after [yet another] tutoring session.

A 12-year-old ‘latch key’ tween gets home from school every day at about 4 o’clock. Her parents both work full-time. They arrive home an hour or two after she gets off the bus. While alone in her home during the late afternoon, she wonders what all her friends are doing after school – are they hanging out at the park? Are they at sports practice? What is she missing? She tries to keep up by messaging them on her phone, checking and refreshing the screen for responses constantly.

Sad teen girl looks at her phone

These tweens are anxious.

Symptoms of anxiety in children and tweens present differently than they do in teens and young adults, though there are some overlapping trends. Somatic complaints (physical symptoms) and emotional distress can appear in any age group. However, anxiety in younger youth (ages 8 – 12) is an increasingly concerning topic. In 2012, 11.6% of kids had anxiety. A decade later, and after the coronavirus pandemic, that percentage has risen to nearly 20%.

Why?

From covid-related stressors like social isolation and missed milestones, to early or excessive use of social media, to family and environmental stressors, there’s no shortage of possible causes.

Understanding how anxiety manifests in different age groups is key to effective intervention and support. This article provides practical tools and insights to help youth-serving professionals recognize and address anxiety in children aged 8-10 and tweens aged 11-12. We will cover:

Recognizing the Differences

Understanding how anxiety manifests differently across age groups will help professionals deliver more effective support. While children (ages 8-10) and tweens (ages 11-12) share some common anxiety symptoms, there are notable distinctions influenced by their developmental stages.

Anxiety in Children (Ages 8-10)

Anxiety in children ages 8-10 can present in a number of different ways, making it challenging at times to identify. Children in this age group often express anxiety through physical symptoms like stomachaches and headaches. They may not have the vocabulary to express their feelings, which can also lead to behavioral changes. They may avoid activities they once enjoyed, be more clingy, and excessively worry about specific events (like school tests or social gatherings). Children in this age group might have trouble articulating their feelings, leading to frustration and acting out. A late elementary age child might worry excessively about standardized tests or making friends. At this age, many children are able to perceive when there is a change in family dynamics, and an increase in marital or family conflict can contribute to anxiety as well.

Anxiety in Tweens (Ages 11-12)

Anxiety in tweens (ages 11-12) may present differently than in younger youth. Tweens experience anxiety more cognitively, with symptoms such as excessive worrying, restlessness, and difficulty concentrating. They may show signs of irritability, changes in sleep patterns, and avoidance of social situations. This age group is more likely to understand their feelings but might still struggle to manage them effectively. They can articulate their worries better than younger children, which helps in identifying their specific anxiety triggers. Understanding the specific triggers for anxiety in tweens is important. Triggers will likely include academic pressures, peer relationships, body image concerns, and the onset of puberty.

Differences from Teens and Young Adults

Teens and young adults typically have anxiety rooted in identity, future prospects, and complex social relationships. Their anxieties often revolve around performance, peer acceptance, and existential concerns. They might experience more chronic forms of anxiety, such as generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder, and are more capable of expressing and understanding their mental health concerns.

To illustrate the differences, consider these hypothetical examples:

1. Child (8-10): A 9-year-old girl frequently complains of stomachaches before school. She avoids playing with her friends and prefers staying close to her parents. Her anxiety is triggered by the fear of being laughed at if the teacher calls on her to read aloud, and of failing the weekly comprehension tests. She worries she is always being judged by her peers.

2. Tween (11-12): An 11-year-old boy becomes increasingly irritable and struggles to focus on his homework. He worries excessively about fitting in with his classmates, almost all of whom are taller than him. He worries about not performing well enough on his soccer team. His anxiety manifests as restlessness and disrupted sleep.

3. Teen (13-18): A 16-year-old high school student experiences chronic worry about college applications, social acceptance, and future career paths. Her anxiety leads to frequent panic attacks and avoidance of social gatherings.

4. Young Adult (19-24): A 22-year-old college student faces anxiety about graduating and entering the workforce. He worries about his career prospects, financial independence, and living up to his parents’ expectations. His anxiety manifests in increasing alcohol consumption, excessive rumination, and occasional bouts of depression.

Recognizing these developmental differences helps professionals to tailor their approaches to the specific needs of each age group, ensuring more effective anxiety management.

Strategies and Coping Mechanisms for Children (Ages 8 – 10)

Managing anxiety in children aged 8-10 requires a blend of creativity, patience, and practical strategies. At this age, children benefit from simple, engaging techniques that help them understand and manage their emotions. Here are some effective strategies and coping mechanisms:

1. Mindfulness and Relaxation Exercises

Introducing mindfulness activities can help children focus on the present moment and reduce anxiety. Simple exercises such as deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation can be very effective. For example, teaching children to take slow, deep breaths by imagining they are blowing up a balloon can help calm their nervous system.

Try the 3-3-3 Rule

This is a simple strategy to help anyone, including children, reset and stay grounded when anxiety seems to be overtaking. Guide the youth to name 3 things they can see, 3 things they can hear, and then move 3 different body parts.

For example:

See

  1. I see a leather chair
  2. I see Mr. Potato Head in the box of toys over there
  3. I see your glasses

Hear

  1. I hear the clock ticking
  2. I hear the garbage truck outside
  3. I hear the noise machine in the corner by the door

Movement

  1. Stretch your arms up high
  2. Slowly roll your neck around in circles
  3. Stand on your tiptoes

2. Cognitive-Behavioral Strategies

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques can be adapted for younger children. This includes helping them identify negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. For example, if a child is worried about failing a test, guide them to think about the times they have succeeded and remind them of their efforts and preparations. Frame the discussion around what they can control – how much they study, the effort they put in, having a good attitude, etc., over what they cannot control – how the teacher grades their essay, if there are surprise questions on the test, etc.

3. Creative Outlets

Encouraging creative activities such as drawing, painting, or playing music can provide children with a way to express their feelings and manage anxiety. Guiding youth to show (rather than say) how they feel through visual art, via song or instrument, or during play – these are all especially therapeutic mediums for this age group.

4. Physical Activity

Regular physical activity is essential for managing anxiety in children. (It is essential for all of us!) Playing outside in the yard or riding a bike in the neighborhood, participating in sports, or simple exercises like jumping jacks or dancing to music in their room can help release built-up tension and improve mood.

5. Children’s Books on Anxiety

Books can be a great tool for helping children understand and cope with anxiety. Here are some recommended titles:

  • Wilma Jean the Worry Machine by Julia Cook: This book helps children understand and manage their worries in a fun and engaging way.
  • What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner: A practical workbook that teaches children techniques to manage their anxiety.
  • The Invisible String by Patrice Karst: This book offers comfort and reassurance to children dealing with separation anxiety or loss.
  • The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside: A story about a girl who learns how to manage her worries and seek help.
  • Hey Warrior by Karen Young: This book explains anxiety to children in a friendly, empowering way, helping them understand how their brain works.

6. Creating a Routine

Establishing a consistent daily routine can go a long way to providing a sense of stability and predictability, which is comforting for anxious children. Many parents focus on routines in baby and toddler years, and it isn’t always as intuitive to do so in the later elementary years. Work with parents to ensure they have a balanced schedule that includes time for homework, play, and relaxation.

7. Open Communication

Encourage children to talk about their feelings and let them know it’s okay to feel anxious! Remind the youth in your care that they can always come to you for support, no matter how big or small their worry is. Use age-appropriate language to discuss their anxiety and validate their feelings.

Implementing these strategies can significantly help children manage their anxiety and build resilience.

Strategies and Coping Mechanisms for Tweens (Ages 11-12)

As tweens face the transition from childhood to adolescence, their anxiety can become more complex and challenging to manage. Here are some specific strategies and coping mechanisms for this age group:

1. Mindfulness and Relaxation Exercises

Tweens can benefit from more advanced mindfulness techniques. In addition to practices such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided meditations, consider an app like Calm or Headspace – these tools offer age-appropriate guided meditations that can be helpful. The 3-3-3 Rule still applies and is also effective for this age group.

2. Cognitive-Behavioral Strategies

CBT remains effective for tweens, but the strategies can be more sophisticated. Help them identify and challenge negative thoughts by using thought records or journals. Teach them to replace irrational fears with logical, positive thoughts. Role-playing scenarios can also help them practice these skills in a safe environment.

3. Peer Support and Group Activities

Tweens are heavily influenced by their peers. Encourage participation in group activities that promote teamwork and social interaction, such as sports, clubs, or group projects. Peer support groups where they can share experiences and coping strategies can also be beneficial.

4. Encouraging Physical Activity

Regular physical activity continues to be crucial for managing anxiety. The importance of movement cannot be overstated – regular exercise at all age groups has profound and positive effects on physical and mental health, both in the short and long run. Talk to the youth in your care about their favorite sports (recreation or organized), riding bikes with friends, playing at the park, or simply unstructured, regular outdoor play. All of this can and will help release and reduce stress and improve mood. Encourage activities that they enjoy!

5. Books and Resources Suitable for Tweens:

Books can provide tweens with insights and coping strategies for anxiety. Here are some recommendations:

  • Stress Can Really Get on Your Nerves! by Trevor Romain and Elizabeth Verdick: A fun and informative book that helps tweens understand and manage stress.
  • Mindfulness for Kids: 30 Fun Activities to Stay Calm, Happy, and In Control by Carole P. Roman: Although targeted at a slightly younger audience, many activities in this book are also suitable for tweens.
  • Outsmarting Worry: An Older Kid’s Guide to Managing Anxiety by Dawn Huebner: A practical guide that helps tweens develop strategies to manage anxiety.

6. Building Self-Esteem and Confidence

Activities that build self-esteem can help tweens feel more resilient against anxiety. Encourage them to set and achieve personal goals, celebrate their successes, and engage in hobbies that they excel at. Positive reinforcement from adults and peers can significantly boost their confidence.

7. Teaching Problem-Solving Skills

Equip tweens with problem-solving skills to handle anxiety-inducing situations. Teach them to break down problems into manageable steps, consider multiple solutions, and evaluate the outcomes. This not only helps with anxiety but also prepares them for future challenges.

For Parents and Caregivers: Coping with Your Anxious Child

Parents have a very important role in helping their children and tweens manage anxiety. By understanding and addressing their child’s anxiety, parents can provide the support that is needed and understand when it is time to get professional support.

Parents and caregivers: start by educating yourself about anxiety. Knowing what anxiety is and how it manifests in children is the first step. Being able to recognize the common symptoms and triggers of anxiety in children and tweens will help you recognize anxiety in your own child and respond appropriately.

Encourage open dialogue about feelings and worries. Let your child know it’s okay to feel anxious and that they can talk to you about anything that’s bothering them. Use age-appropriate language and be patient, giving them time to express themselves. Sometimes, just naming the feeling is enough. “You feel really worried about the test on Friday.” Knowing that they aren’t alone in their feelings of worry and stress can be a huge relief in itself.

Aim to model calm behavior and avoid immediate reaction. Remember, children often mirror their parents. By staying calm and level-headed, especially in stressful situations, parents can model effective coping mechanisms for their children. Demonstrating how to manage stress and anxiety can be very impactful. Additionally, take a look around your child’s room and throughout the areas of your home where they spend the most time. Is there a way you can create a quiet space for them to unwind? Any adjustments to their bedroom with comforting items like books, soft lighting, or calming music? Limiting exposure to technology and social media, especially in the evening, can also help.

A consistent daily routine can provide children and tweens with a sense of security and predictability. As they are given more and more responsibility at school and in their extracurriculars outside of the home, it is increasingly important to feel that home is a safe, secure, predictable place. Try to build and stick to a schedule that includes time for homework, play, relaxation, and family time. Regular sleep patterns and healthy eating habits also contribute to overall well-being.

Praise and reward your child for their efforts to manage anxiety, no matter how small. Positive reinforcement encourages them to continue using healthy coping mechanisms and builds their confidence in handling anxious situations.

If your child’s anxiety is severe or persistent, seek professional help. Therapists, counselors, and pediatricians can provide valuable support and treatment options. Working with your child’s school to create a supportive environment can also be beneficial.

Screening for Anxiety: Using TELL & TALK

Effective screening tools are essential for accurately identifying anxiety in children and tweens. ΛDΛM’s TELL & TALK screeners provide a structured approach to assess anxiety levels and guide intervention strategies.

Overview of ΛDΛM’s TELL & TALK Screeners in the ΛDΛM System

ΛDΛM is a trauma-responsive health technology that delivers risk screening and brief interventions. ΛDΛM includes three primary screeners designed to identify anxiety (and other risk factors) in youth, ages 8 through young adulthood. TELL is for children ages 8-10, TALK is for tweens ages 11-12, and VENT is for youth and young adults ages 13 and up. These screening tools are easy to use! They can be administered by professionals in any youth-serving organization or setting and delivered remotely to a child or tween in the office or from a virtual setting.

Benefits of Using TELL & TALK for Children and Tweens

Utilizing screeners like TELL and TALK aligns with the U.S. Surgeon General’s recommendation to screen for anxiety starting at age 8. Additional benefits include:

Early Identification: These screeners help identify anxiety early – before symptoms get worse and potentially impact other areas (school performance, eating habits). Early identification supports timely intervention and support.

Structured Approach: Using screening tools enables professionals to deliver an evidence-based, standardized approach with a systematic way to screen for and treat anxiety. Professionals who implement universal screening ensure no youth goes unnoticed.

Supportive Communication: The TELL and TALK screeners promote open dialogue between the youth and professionals. The tools provide professionals with automated workflows, including next steps for referral and educational resources to share with parents.

By using ΛDΛM’s screeners, youth professionals can effectively assess and address anxiety in children and tweens, ensuring they receive the necessary support to manage their emotions and build resilience.

Conclusion

Understanding and managing anxiety in children and tweens requires a nuanced approach tailored to their developmental stages. By recognizing the unique symptoms and triggers in children (ages 8-10) and tweens (ages 11-12), professionals and parents can implement effective strategies to support these age groups.

  • Key differences in anxiety symptoms across age groups: Recognizing how anxiety manifests differently in children, tweens, and teens is crucial for effective intervention.
  • Effective strategies and coping mechanisms: Techniques such as mindfulness exercises, cognitive-behavioral strategies, and creative outlets help manage anxiety in children and tweens.
  • Utilizing ΛDΛM’s TELL & TALK screeners: These tools provide a structured approach to assess anxiety and guide the next steps in supporting anxious children.

As a next step, consider exploring advanced techniques for managing anxiety in adolescents and young adults. Understanding the transition from tween to teenage years and how anxiety evolves can further enhance your ability to provide comprehensive support.