Helping Children Navigate Anxiety

Helping Children Navigate Anxiety

Sharing feelings, listening without judgement during current political turmoil

As communities cope with the shock of daunting images of the recent riot at the U.S. Capitol, the mental health toll on children and teens can be significant but go unnoticed, say local therapists. Some children turn inward, withdraw and refuse to discuss their feelings. A child’s response to these intense situations will vary based on age.

“This is because they are at different stages of development and how they process and understand the world around them,” said Marla Zometsky, therapist and Wellness, Health Promotion & Prevention Manager at the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board (CSB). “Children may not know how or be able to express their feelings. Some may have trouble sleeping, be irritable, or be more frightened in general. Middle school children may have trouble focusing, be preoccupied with the events, or withdrawal more. Teenagers may feel overwhelmed by the intensity of their emotions.”

Parents and caretakers can begin to help their children by starting a dialogue, listening without interrupting and validating a child’s feelings. “As with any challenge or unsettling event, it is important to gauge how a child, adolescent or young adult understands the situation,” said Zometsky. “They may believe they are in direct harm or at risk. Knowing what a child or youth believes or thinks about a situation helps parents and caregivers know how to respond and to provide correct, reliable and age-appropriate information.”

From anxiety to depression, children absorb the reactions of their parents, which might include stress, anxiety, depression, anger, frustration and other emotions. “Parents sharing their feelings with their children is positive, as it normalizes that we all have emotions which need to be expressed,” said Laura Finkelstein, Ph.D., Marymount University's Assistant Vice President of Student Health and Well-Being. “However, parents ideally share feelings in a boundaried way, without children feeling like they have to take care of their parents.”

The mental health of middle and high school might be impacted by what they might see on television, hear at school or learn from peers regarding the political climate, added Finkelstein. “[It] impacts most of us, and children are no exception,” she said.

In fact therapists have seen a significant spike in cases of anxiety and depression in children and teens since the beginning of COVID-19 and during the recent political instability, says Maryland-based therapist Courtney Hart, LCSW-C. Hart, who specializes in treating adolescents who struggle with anxiety and depression, said “If parents or caretakers are concerned … I think one of the best things that they could do is have their child meet with a mental health professional,” she said.

Among the signs that seeking help from a therapist might be prudent are a lack of interest in activities that they normally enjoy or expressing emotions that are normally out of character such anger, irritability or sadness, advises Hart.

“Children and teens are going through an unprecedented time and they are isolated from most of their social interactions,” she said. “They are at home with parents even though developmentally tweens and teens are starting to separate from their parents and look to peers for acceptance. They are dealing with huge losses of a typical childhood. A child or teen in individual or group counseling will find a safe place to process those feelings and develop healthy coping skills.”