Helping an anxious child through a PCS.
“I’m worried,” whispers the little boy to his mother while he fidgets on a bench behind the playground. My eyes casually roam to where the mother and son closely huddle together.
“What are you worried about, honey?” The mom asks in a sweet maternal voice. Waiting for the reply, wondering myself what would make a ten year-old-looking boy so worried and nervous at a playground. I scan the equipment, the park and street for any danger or looming darkness of the skies. Nothing. It’s a perfect park day. We’re on a military base, and the park is open and inviting. The sun is shining, and skies are blue. It’s a beautiful day. My kids are the only other children playing, and they’re harmless – unless you’re a strawberry cupcake or the ice cream truck.
I lean in a little closer, so I hear his response. After kicking a few rocks and shrugging his shoulders, never glancing up he responds.
The anxious military child. I have a name for them – Lil’ Worrying Warriors. I have one, and he’s amazing. I understand what “everything” means without him having to explain it.
Anxiety is part of any childhood, but for children of military families, it can take on a life of its own, especially around PCS season. It means a change in routine, a relocation, a change in home, a change in school and a change in friends. As a parent, we know when something might trigger our Lil Worrying Warriors. We understand our child is different, and we’ll make every accommodation to calm them before they reach the storm.
In general, anxiety is a good thing. It’s our body’s natural response to danger or feeling stress. Call it our internal alarm system that allows us to jump out of the way of a car or gives us the sense of urgency when there are important events in our life. Anxiety affects children in the same way as it affects adults – both physical and emotional. Children can feel the same “fight or flight” sensation as we do such as heart racing, muscles tense, pupils dilating, sweating and more.
Experts believe anxiety can be genetic or provoked by life experiences. As the saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If a parent or close relative is anxious, a child is more likely to have problems with anxiety. However, life experiences such as bullying at school, a bad experience at the doctors, trouble at home or things children have witnessed can exaggerate their anxiety.
Anxiety in children can show up in many different ways such as panic attacks, social anxiety, frequent nightmares, excessive worrying, germophobia or insects/animals. The range is as diverse as the children.
Many children can experience an array of anxiety before, during and after a PCS. Starting a new school is a common fear, but children can associate a new move with the deployment of a parent. Anxious children worry about the future, not the present. Experiencing something new and scary, like something as simple as strange weather patterns in a new location can trigger anxiety, could cause worrying.
In school, just saying hello in the halls or raising their hand in class can be a traumatic experience and can interfere with the ability to learn. Remember, anxiety is both physical and emotional. The flight or fight response will kick in for something as minor as being called on to answer a question in class. It can be an exhausting and scary experience for children, especially when they don’t understand what they are feeling.
Telling an anxious child to “just relax” is not helpful nor a solution. It has the opposite effect. There are real exercises and mental thoughts children can use to work through anxiety. According to Anxiety BC , a resource site dedicated to helping kids understand and cope with their anxiety, there are a number of Chill Out tools children can use when they feel anxiety taking hold.
- Calm breathing – When the brain thinks it’s in a scary situation, it prepares the body for danger by reviving up the system. Breathing calmly and controlled tricks the body into slowing down.
- Mindfulness – An anxious brain likes to focus on the future and everything that can go wrong. Practicing staying present – thinking only about what is happing NOW, not tomorrow – is a trick that refocuses the brain to be calm.
- Take a mental vacation – When anxiety takes hold, have your child practice visualizing their favorite calm spot. It could be their favorite reading place, the beach or a place they always feel calm or happy. This will help calm the body and brain.
- Tense and Release exercise – When the body holds onto worries and stress, muscles can get really tight and start to ache. Most of the time, a child doesn’t even notice how physically tense they are. This can lead to headaches, stomachaches, and feeling exhausted. Ask your child to tense all their muscles and then relax them one by one until they are loose and relaxed.
According to another great resource for parents and kids, WorryWiseKids, a parent should be concerned when their child’s behavior no longer matches the situation. Anxiety is considered a disorder not based on what the child is worried about, but rather how that worry is impacting a child’s functioning. The content may be normal, but help is needed when a child is suffering or the worrying excessive to what appears to be insignificant situations.
When worrying then avoidance is a first response or coaxing and reassurances are ineffective, a parent should seek addition help. For these kids, anxiety is not protecting them, but preventing them from accelerating in school and participating in life
Some anxiety symptoms and behaviors can last for weeks or months and can cause headaches, stomach aches, nausea, vomiting and sleeplessness. Also, a child’s unwillingness to go outside their comfort zone, crying fits, tantrums and clinginess are all very common.
Don’t expect your Lil’ Worrying Warriors to figure it out on their own. Help them understand the way they are feeling and offer reassurance. Contact your pediatrician if you feel anxiety is preventing your child from enjoying and participating in life. They’ll need a little extra support and techniques to move them forward. Also, the child’s school can help too by making special accommodations for children with anxiety. Ask to speak to a school psychologist or counselor when you arrive at your new location and ask for help.
More importantly, be present yourself. Children will look to parents for reassurance. Moving can be very stressful for the entire family; being calm and in the present is good role modeling for your anxious child.
What happened to the Lil’ Worrying Warrior on the park bench with his mother? I’m not sure, but I offered what I could to help. I called my two kids over to me and whispered in their ears, “See the boy on the bench. I think he’s a little nervous and needs a friend. Remember last year when you were really scared of this new place? I think he might need a friend to tell him it will be ok. I think he might be a Lil’ Worrying Warrior like you.” Both kids looked over their shoulder and nodded. My son picked up a soccer ball, my daughter a bottle of bubbles and walked over to him. My son approached cautiously, nervous himself.
“Hi, my name is Erik. Wanna play?”
The boy looked up for the first time. And, a faint smile appeared. Then the mom looked over at me. She mouthed the words to me that connected us from that moment on.
*A previous version of this article appeared in Military Spouse Magazine.