As a parent, the last thing you would want is for your child to hurt or have a bad experience. However, anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions affecting over 15% of children and adolescents. One of the main concerns regarding children and anxiety is that since the child may quiet and most parents may not recognise that their child may be suffering. Even when they realise there might be a problem some parents may think that their child will 'grow out of it'. This may be the case for few, but for the majority anxiety will creep into teenage years and even adulthood if left untreated. The good news is, there are numerous different ways you can help manage your child's anxiety and support them in the process.
Untreated anxiety in children can quite often lead to depression and a decrease in quality of life. Some anxiety in children is normal and can be expected, especially if the child is starting a new nursery/school or in an environment different from what they are used to, such as moving to a different area. Typically, bouts of anxiety include nervousness and a feeling of unease. This should soon clear up when the child feels more comfortable and gets used to the new environment. If the anxiety persist and the child starts not being able to do the things they were able to do before or they are very distressed you should seek help from your GP or pediatrician.
Your child may too young to recognise why they are feeling the way that they are, and may not be able to tell you. However, there are some signs you can look out for in your child. These include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Not sleeping with ease or waking during the night
- Changes in appetite, including losing their appetite or eating too much
- Prone to outbursts
- Constantly worrying
- Complaints of stomach aches and feeling generally unwell
- Crying more than usual and feeling generally clingy
There are a few common types of anxiety that can stem from childhood these include -
A particular fear: A specific fear of something (such as animals, situations or school) can easily develop into a phobia (an irrational intense fear of something) which impacts day to day life.
Separation anxiety: Separation anxiety is worrying about not being with their parent or carer. This can make school and socialising overwhelming if their parent is not present.
School-based anxiety: Some children can feel more anxious that others when starting school. Children may complain of stomach aches and feeling unwell in order to avoid attending school.
Social anxiety: Social anxiety is an intense fear for social situations. The young person fears they might be embarrassed, rejected or bullied at gatherings. Social anxiety disorder is more common in older children after they have reached puberty.
Generalised anxiety disorder: It is common for young children to have fears and worries however when these thoughts won't go away, it can lead to generalised anxiety disorder.
Anxiety in children is typically treated with cognitive behavioural therapy which challenges your child's worrying thoughts. Other counselling is also available through your GP or privately. Medication is also available for severe anxiety disorders however is not typically recommended for young children.
There are a few things you can do to help ease your child's anxiety, including:
- Pay attention to your child's feelings
- Stay calm when your child becomes anxious about a situation or event
- Recognise and praise small accomplishments such as socialising
- Don't punish your child for making mistakes
- Try to maintain a routine
- Practise mindfulness with your child, allowing them to focus on the moment should decrease the likelihood of them dwelling on a past event for too long
- Teach your child relaxation techniques such as deep breathing when they are feeling particularly anxious
- Do not make them feel as if they are not normal for experiencing anxiety
- Never say things like 'grow up', 'don't be silly' or 'I don't understand why you're nervous, it's only..."
- Be understanding.
Having an anxiety disorder as an adult is bad enough, having one as a child and not being able to fully understand why you are feeling the way you are is even more difficult. Listen to child when they express their feelings and assure them that everything will be okay. Anxiety is a difficult road, but with your support and care, they will get better!