Anxiety in Children
By Sharon Omiwole & Michael Keane
What is anxiety?
Have you ever felt fearful about going to a new school, giving a presentation to a group of people or trying something new? Feeling anxious is your body’s way of dealing with stress. It may make you worried about what will happen, and make you feel like things are going to go wrong and that you are in danger.
Anxiety is a natural human reaction, and it serves an important biological function: It’s an alarm system that’s activated whenever we perceive danger or a threat
Feeling some anxiety is normal, especially in some situations. When we are anxious, our bodies will release a range of hormones, including adrenaline which affects your whole body - one of the most noticeable effects is that your heart beats faster and you feel butterflies in your tummy. These body changes happen so that you can escape from or confront anything that may be putting you in harm’s way.
If anxiety lasts much longer than situations that trigger it, is too extreme or interferes with your daily activities, then this may be an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders have a big impact on your feelings, thoughts and behaviour, and can negatively affect how you go about your day to day life. Anxiety disorders are among some of the most common mental health conditions and affects about 20% of children and adolescents.
A child may have difficulty describing what they are feeling and why, and changes in behaviour may be noticeable when they are feeling anxious. Some examples of anxiety symptoms in children may include:
- Excessive shyness and worry
- Avoiding places and situations due to fear
- Panic attacks
- Trouble concentrating and being focused
- Trouble sleeping
If you notice your child happens to experience anxiety more frequently or more intensely than before or than others their age, then consider booking an appointment with your GP or a Mental Health Professional.
Some different types of anxiety disorders that a child can have include:
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder: this is a common anxiety disorder where children will worry excessively about normal everyday things such as taking a test or what will become of them in the future. They will often ask “what if?” type questions.
- Separation Anxiety Disorder: the child fears being separated from a person they highly value such as a parent, a care giver or a nanny. The child may cry or cling onto the adult when they try to go to work, leaving them behind at home.
- Selective Mutism: this is an anxiety disorder found in childhood where a child can speak in some situations but not in others. For example, a child may be comfortable speaking to family members at home, but once that child goes to school they have trouble speaking to their classmates and their teachers.
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: this anxiety disorder is usually associated with having witnessed or gone through a traumatic experience. It can cause distressing flashbacks and nightmares.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: children with this anxiety disorder will have obsessions that will preoccupy their thoughts, and these will be accompanied by compulsions (repeated actions) to manage the obsessions. Some examples might include excessive handwashing or cleaning or having to do sequences of actions.
- Social Anxiety Disorder: the excessive fear of negative judgements by others in social situations. This may cause a child to avoid situations such as performing in front of a crowd or even celebratory events like birthdays or parties.
What Causes Anxiety Disorders?
A combination of factors such as genetics, brain biochemistry, an overactive fight-flight response, stressful life circumstances and learned behaviour are likely to play a role in anxiety disorders. For example, it has been found that if a child has a family member with an anxiety disorder then this will increase the likelihood of the child developing one as well.
Environmental factors such as where the child goes to school, or where the child was brought up and how they were raised also has an impact. Children who have been abused or who have had a family member pass away may be more vulnerable to developing an anxiety disorder.
How Can It Be Treated?
Your GP or a mental health professional will be able to treat your child’s anxiety disorder by creating a plan specifically for your child. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is often used to treat children with an anxiety disorder. Medication can be used to treat anxiety, but this is more rarely used in children.
As a parent there are also things you can do to help your child deal with anxiety. Here are a few things that you can do that may be helpful:
1. Adopt a supportive, patient and understanding approach. This creates a safe space where your child can speak openly about how they feel.
2. Children learn by observing, so modelling and explaining how you deal with stressful and anxiety-provoking situations can be helpful.
3. Help your child to label the full range of their emotions (e.g. help them to use sentences like “I’m feeling sad about…”)
4. Avoid the temptation to problem-solve for your child. Instead, encourage them to try to think of possible solutions for themselves.
5. Notice and manage your own anxiety.
6. Facilitate your child to face the things they fear, beginning with a small step (e.g. if they are afraid of dogs, begin by showing them pictures of friendly dogs!)
7. Avoid avoidance where possible.
For more information in regards to anxiety in children check out the following:
Signs your child may be struggling with anxiety
Helping Anxious Children
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