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Managing Anxiety

Dear Debi,
I take care of my 18-month-old grandchild. Sometimes when he’s away from me for long periods of time, he hits and bites when he returns. How do I help him deal with his anger and is there a reason for this behavior?
Arlyn , Torrance, CA
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Stay calm
  • Try to see things from the child’s point of view
  • Tailor your responses to each child and circumstance
  • Model your own coping skills when things upset you
Expert Advice
Ann Corwin, Ph.D.
Ann Corwin, Ph.D.
Parenting Consultant
Sometimes it’s fine to feel a certain amount of anxiety, if a child gets upset when they have to say goodbye to somebody they like. If the kid is always ambivalent, the kid doesn’t have a strong attachment.

When a child gets upset, the provider should focus on reasons why children may become upset. Are they angry, frustrated, scared, feeling left out, needing attention? These reasons vary not only according to precipitating circumstances, and each child’s temperament, but also according to their stage of development. For instance, three year olds may feel abandoned or scared when their parent leaves, but babies or toddlers may feel a sense of loss.

The first step to guiding children into an appropriate way to handle their stress is to acknowledge the fact that anxiety is a real feeling. Kids in the first five years of life are telling us, “I have this feeling, but I don’t know what to do about it.” They don’t know what anxiety is, so your job is to give kids some emotional education. A good way to do that is through books. Any books that talk about the different emotions and what kids can do about it is great; or anything that labels and helps define an emotion, such as frustration.

If a kid is frustrated by something, you can say, “You’re feeling very orange.” Use distraction with an 18-month-old. Then review with him at the time what he’s feeling. It’s the same with adults. If you’re anxious about flying, and you’re watching planes fly, you’re gonna get more anxious. What adults do is distract themselves.

Movement really helps anxiety and helps overcome the feeling that you’re stuck. Let’s say a child is anxious about not having what they want to play with. That’s a clue to a provider to get the child moving.

Since an 18-month-old won’t know why they’re anxious, it’s important for a provider to guess why a child may be upset. Once we take our best guess, then you want to label the anxiety, tell them what they’re feeling, then show them what they can do about it.

There are a lot of different types of cries, but it’s mainly to draw you closer to them. It’s a behavior that insures that a child is going to get some kind of attachment. A healthy attachment is, “I cry and someone picks me up.” The cry is telling the caretaker that I need some kind of attention.

For an 18-month-old, most of the crying has to do with their needs rather than their wants. The true cry has to do with, I really am tired or I really am hungry. I need you to offer me something because my body’s telling me it just doesn’t feel right. Sometimes it can be a cry for a toy, but you still need to do some soothing. The 18 month old is thinking, if I don’t get that toy, a piece of me is gone, because it’s tied to a basic need of understanding who they are.

An adult should try to see things from the child’s perspective; it’s the key to good parenting. The more we know about how our kids’ brains work, the better. There is so much misinterpretation when we’re viewing kids with an adult brain. Adults will say, “she’s such a cry baby,” or “why is she scared I’m not coming back, she should know better.” No, they don’t know that. It has to do with how we interpret what we see. You and I know we’re coming back, but the child doesn’t; this anxiety is just as real as it is for an adult when someone dies. And as adults we let people grieve. When a child experiences separation anxiety they’re going through grief and it makes them anxious and scared.

You need to tailor your response to each child and circumstance because kids all have different personalities. If you try something that doesn’t work, try another method to help them cope. When I’m anxious, for example, I like to talk through it.

Adults should always model appropriate behavior for kids. We don’t want kids to stay stuck in their anxiety. Practice and play with kids. Play “Bye-Bye” or play the “Hello” game. Let them know goodbye doesn’t mean you’re never coming back. The more you are seemingly in control or the more you model that you can get control of your anxiety, the more assured the child is that somebody’s in charge. As children grow older, you’re setting the foundation for them to be able to cope with the inevitable anxiety they’ll be experiencing in life.
Child Care provider Comments
Alma Martinez
Alma Martinez
Child care provider for 10 years
I would suggest to a child who is upset to sit on the couch, maybe with a book, and think about what happened and calm down. If we are outside, I’ll ask the child to play by him or herself. I tell them it’s ok to say what’s on their mind: I’m sad, or mad, or something is upsetting me.
Provider for 10 years
If a child is upset, I give him or her a quiet place to calm down. Where I nanny, the little girl has a comfy chair with a basket of books. It’s her chair, she is the only one who can fit into it, and it’s a nice place where she can relax until she feels better.
Family child care provider for 4 years
There are a couple of places in my child care area where we have soft pillows. I take them there not as a punishment, but as a resting time. It’s kind of a little space for privacy where I give them time to rest and calm down and try to work it out themselves. If they need my help, I am there too.

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Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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