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Health Tips for Parents

2009 Issues

How can I help my child cope with anxiety?


boy baseball helmet 0309 HTFeeling nervous is a normal emotion for children, but when a child’s level of anxiety starts to interfere with day-to-day life, parents should take note.

What is anxiety? Anxiety is a sense of worry, apprehension, fear or distress. It can be triggered by stressful or frightening events or exposure to dangerous situations. According to John Piacentini, Ph.D., professor and director of the Child OCD, Anxiety and Tic Disorders Program at the UCLA Semel Institute, anxiety is thought to result from a combination of biological and environmental factors, but research also suggests a genetic predisposition in some children. 

Most children are able to work through their fears, but for some, anxieties can lead to long-standing impairment and distress. Dr. Piacentini says that roughly 20 percent of American children suffer from anxiety. 

Studies of adult anxiety disorders indicate that most adults developed their anxiety in childhood. A condition that was once ignored in children, anxiety is now better identified and treated by the medical community.

Mar09FemaleStudentParents can help Parents who suspect that their child is suffering from anxiety should try, in a supportive manner, to find out what specific thoughts or worries are making the child anxious. It is often helpful to explain that anxious feelings are common and talk about people or situations that trigger the anxious feelings in their child. In many cases, according to Dr. Piacentini, parents might help clarify some misbeliefs that are at the root of the problem. 

Together, parents and children can help come up with some strategies to face the situation. 

“Parents should not comfort the children to the point that they are sheltering them from what is causing the anxiety,” he says. “Doing this will only make their fears stronger and will not allow them to face their problems in a constructive way.” This is particularly true for parents of children with a predisposition for anxiety.

Signs of anxiety


A child does not want to go to school, go to parties or get into situations where they might encounter people or situations they find frightening.

Physical symptoms

A child may begin complaining of stomach- aches or headaches.

Emotional symptoms

In many cases, children become irritable, sad or depressed. They may want to sleep in their parents’ bed or not sleep at all. Other children may constantly seek reassurance from a parent.

Mar09DepressedboyGetting Help

A child who shows prolonged symptoms of anxiety — such as feeling sick or constantly avoiding certain situations — should be evaluated for treatment. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is used to teach coping skills, such as physical relaxation techniques or imagery.

Dr. Piacentini urges parents to make a child’s life as balanced as possible, and allow him/her a little unstructured time each day to decompress.

For information about the UCLA Child Anxiety Program, go to http://www.semel.ucla.edu/caap/

This information is provided courtesy of the pediatricians at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA. UCLA Health pediatricians are conveniently located in your neighborhood. In addition to our Children’s Health Center in Westwood, we have offices in Brentwood, Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica and West Los Angeles.

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