As parents, we want the best for our kids–to be happy and healthy–physically, emotionally and mentally. It can be heart-breaking when we see them suffer and unable to enjoy all that life has to offer. One of the ways that children can struggle is with anxiety.
What is Anxiety?
Simply put, anxiety is the fear of what might happen. We experience a trigger such as an invitation to a party. Our social anxiety ramps up. As we imagine ourselves standing tongue-tied and lonely on the edges of the party, the emotional centre of our brain becomes activated, stimulating the fight, flight or freeze reaction. Next thing we know, we’re having a full-blown anxiety or panic attack.
Anxiety is a condition that can make our world become very small as it is a condition of “avoidance”. When we have been anxious in one situation (e.g. a large party) we seek to avoid similar experiences in the future (no more parties!). The more anxiety-producing events there are, the more we start to avoid things. Untreated anxiety can lead to depression. In extreme cases, we may become afraid to leave our homes due to the fear of anxiety or panic attacks.
Anxiety in Childhood
While we can think of anxiety as being a ‘grown up’ challenge, according to the website anxietybc, anxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns for children and adults, affecting upwards of 20% of children and adolescents over their lifespan.
The good news is that childhood anxiety is very treatable. With support from parents, teachers, family members and therapists; anxious children can learn ways to cope with their anxious thoughts and develop new patterns of behaviour around triggers.
Signs That Your Child May Be Suffering From Anxiety
It can be difficult to admit that your child is struggling. However, if your child is showing any of the following behaviours, they may be suffering from anxiety.
- Clinging, crying and/or tantrums when you leave
- Excessive shyness, avoiding social situations
- Constant worrying and/or worrying hours, days, or weeks ahead of an event
- Avoiding situations or places because of fears
- Complaining of frequent stomachaches or headaches that prevent them from going to school
- Taking part in repetitive physical behaviours such as nail biting or hair pulling
- Experiencing sudden and frequent panic attacks
Asking repeatedly for reassurance, but not comforted by logical answers
Has difficulty falling asleep, frequent nightmares, and difficulty sleeping alone
Experiencing perfectionism, self-critical, or very high standards that make nothing good enough
Feeling overly-responsible, people pleasing, and showing excessive concern that others are upset with him or her, as well as unnecessary apologizing
If your child is dealing with anxiety, it is not a reflection on your parenting. There are many reasons why children can be anxious. Please don’t take your child’s anxiety personally.
Why Should We Be Concerned?
As parents, we sometimes hope that the negative behaviours that our children are showing are ‘just a stage’ and that they will ‘outgrow’ them. Unfortunately, due to their nature, untreated anxiety issues become worse over time.
Unlike adults, young children don’t have the language or concepts around anxiety to explain what they are experiencing. They can begin to think that they are different from their peers, while at the same time not understanding why they feel unable to take part in the same activities as others. These feelings can lead to a lack of self-esteem and the confidence that comes from mastering new situations and skills (social, mental and physical).
What’s a Parent or Caregiver To Do?
As the most important person/people in your child’s life, there are lots that you can do. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests the following ideas for parents to do at home to help their child to cope with anxiety.
- Pay attention to your child’s feelings
- Stay calm when your child becomes anxious about a situation or event
- Recognize and praise small accomplishments
- Don’t punish mistakes or lack of progress
- Be flexible, but try to maintain a normal routine
- Modify expectations during stressful periods
- Plan for transitions (For example, allow extra time in the morning if getting to school is difficult)
- Talk to your child’s teacher, principal, etc. to create a support plan that can be followed both at school and home
There are many resources to help parents and caregivers as they support their children. Websites such as WorryWiseKids and AnxietyBC provide a wealth of information as well as links to other useful sites.
Depending on your child’s age and school district, schools usually have access to on-site social workers, child and youth workers and other specialized staff members who are experienced in helping children with anxiety issues.
A wonderful, child-friendly workbook for parents and children is The Anxiety Workbook for Kids: Take Charge of Fears & Worries Using the Gift of Imagination by Robin Alter, PhD, CPsych and Crystal Clarke, MSW, RSW. Divided into chapters, this book covers everything from explaining anxiety and the brain to how our body reacts to anxiety and coping skills. It also helps children to identify their own triggers and gain mastery over them.
Sometimes, your child’s teacher or social worker will suggest that they see a therapist. When looking for a therapist for your child, check to see that they have experience working with children as this requires a different skill set than working with adults. Depending on the age of your child, they may do well with a therapist skilled in Play Therapy.
At the end of the day, we want our children to feel better as they grow and enjoy their family, friends and activities.
The 2015 movie Inside Out is one of the bests movies I’ve seen to help children understand feelings. Here’s a clip…Enjoy!