May 09

Anxiety in children

The word anxiety is not often associated with children – it rather reminds you of a tense colleague or tight-lipped neighbour. Anxiety disorders in kids are real – 1 in 8 children are suffering with it.  Anxiety is a normal emotion, especially when meeting new friends or having a speech at school. Children should deal with this emotion using age-appropriate coping mechanisms to prepare themselves for the task at hand. Sometimes though, it might seem like the child is not coping with the demands on their lives.  When their reality is altered one should look out for other signs.

First things first, what are anxiety disorders?

  • General anxiety disorder – Having a little worrier! Stressing about small stuff all the time and getting in the way of a happy normal childhood. It is seen more frequently in girls than in boys and can start in childhood or during the teenage years.
  • Separation anxiety disorder – Anxiety is experienced when a child is separated from their parents, loved ones or home. Some form of anxiety is normal in younger children but if this happens every time you try to leave the house then there might be more to it. With this disorder, the child might have an irrational fear that something extremely bad is going to happen to themselves or their parents. Separation anxiety disorder can be triggered by a traumatic experience the child went through or overprotective parents.
  • Panic attacks – When anxiety strikes and it leads to a physical reaction – breathlessness, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, black outs, sweating, etc.
  • Social anxiety disorder – When kids always stress about social events, whether it is with family or friends. They may start off with thinking that they will embarrass themselves or make mistakes. Having a lack of social skills can aggravate the situation. Social anxiety can lead to a panic attack.
  • Selective Mutism – Children with social anxiety usually shows selective mutism. They go completely mute in situation that they uncomfortable in.
  • Selective Phobias – These phobias could be anything from the dark to bananas. Phobias can develop due to a genetic disposition, traumatic event and environmental factors such as age and exposure. The phobias can disappear as the get older.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) –After an traumatic experience it is normal for stress to follow and children can develop a fear of it happening again. Most of the time the fear can subside with support and some help. Children suffering with PTSD relive the experience repeatedly in their minds, which can lead to panic attacks.

Symptoms to look out for:

  • Stressing about everything
  • Over planning
  • Being restless and on the edge
  • Mood swings, irritability and being hostile
  • “Chandeliering” (going from zero to full blown anger in seconds)
  • Negativity, the negative thoughts are experienced very intensely
  • Lack of concentration and inattention
  • Sleeping problems, such as falling asleep, staying asleep or unable to sleep alone
  • Lack of appetite or change in eating habits
  • Feelings of worthlessness and low self esteem
  • Being in a state of perceived danger
  • Irrational fears of impending doom
  • Startles easily
  • Excessive question asking (seeking reassurance)
  • Lack of social life and avoidance of events
  • Getting ways to avoid situations that triggers anxiety such as defiance and misbehaviour
  • Clinginess of caregivers
  • Physical symptoms are:
    • Headaches
    • Overly tired
    • Sweating
    • Shortness of breath
    • Trembling
    • Increased heart rate
    • Complaining of stomach ache or nausea
    • Dizziness
  • Seeking validation
  • Feeling helpless and scared

Your child’s metal health is of the utmost importance and if you have seen a few of these symptoms it is advisable to take your child to a physician for proper diagnosis. The doctor will do a few tests – a physical exam to check for any underlying symptoms, a psychological evaluation consisting of an interview and then maybe some alternative tests (for example the 20-question Jung self-rating anxiety scale).

Depending on the severity of the anxiety the child will be referred to a psychologist or psychiatrist. The treatment plan is individualised for each child with anxiety – it can be a mix of the following:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy – a form of talk therapy or psychotherapy -being the most popular and adding relaxation techniques, meditation, exercise, yoga and acupuncture.
  • Medication – If the anxiety is caused by a shift in the child’s brain chemistry, medication will be required.

How can you help your child

As parents we can help them cope better with anxiety!

  • Be empathetic – we know life can be rough! Listen to them, help them to express their feelings and validate their feelings. Anxiety is real and unpleasant.
  • Encourage them to talk about it. Ask questions about the situation and how they are feeling. No judgement or leading questions. Just listen and be there!
  • Stay calm. Figure out what relaxes your child and help them do the relaxation technique ASAP when the anxiety strikes.
  • Don’t criticize them and lower your expectations during stressful times. We do not want to aggravate the anxiety but rather help them to work through it.
  • Maintain a routine. To prevent any surprises that might trigger them.
  • Recognize and celebrate small achievements.

Bottom line… just love them!

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