Anxiety and children

Anxiety is a very common psychological and emotional experience seen in children and adults. Anxiety is quite “normal” for people to feel when they are worried, nervous or afraid, and the body often responds with physical symptoms such as increased breathing and heart rate, or sweaty palms. However, some people develop anxiety disorders, and become anxious to the point where their ability to function in their everyday life becomes affected.

Anxiety disorders in children

If there are concerns that a child is developing an anxiety disorder, it is important that it is addressed and treated. While anxiety symptoms present themselves in children similarly to adults, children often manage and react to anxiety differently. If a child’s anxiety is left untreated, it can give rise to:
– Low self confidence
– Increasingly missing days at school, or school refusal
– Decreased ability to form interpersonal relationships
Poor coping skills (e.g. dealing with conflict, adjusting to change)
– Anxiety disorders when the child becomes and adult

Signs of anxiety disorders

There are various anxiety disorders frequently found in child and young people. Generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias/fears, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are most common. Some signs and symptoms of anxiety include:
– Excessive or unrealistic worry that does not seem to be associated with any (recent) event
– Often complaining about stomach pains or other aches or physical discomforts not related to any physical condition or injury
– Constant need for reassurance or being extremely self-conscious
– Ongoing panic attacks that have no obvious cause
– Specific fear or phobia of an object or situation
– OCD: Repeated behaviours (which often become ritualistic) or thoughts that the person feels compelled to do and cannot seem to stop, such as repetitive counting or arranging objects.
– PTSD: The person re-lives a traumatic or stressful situation through flashbacks, vivid memories or distressing thoughts.

How Psychology can help

Once a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder has been made, possible therapeutic interventions include can include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or other individual therapies, family therapy, and medications. A combination of treatments may also be adopted, and it is common for individuals to receive medications as well as psychology input involving not only the child, but also their parents or main caregivers.
Psychology has been shown to help children with anxiety disorders by developing their skills to cope with their difficulties and hardships. This often includes:
– Teaching children how to analyse, describe and manage their thoughts and feelings in a reflective and constructive manner
– Promoting children to better comprehend the emotions and behaviours of those around them
– Developing practical relaxation techniques for the child so they can implement same when they are distressed
– A graded approach to exposure therapy to a specific anxiety-inducing situation or phobia
– Working with parents/family to help identify the signs of, and prevent, relapse

A child’s parents or guardians/caregivers are often crucial to how they deal with anxiety difficulties, and thus parents are usually heavily involved in psychological therapies. As a parent, it is critical to remember to:
– Not dismiss or minimise your child’s anxiety, but to help them to realise that the cause of their anxiety may not be as egregious as they think, and assist them through their distress
– Try not to take over from the child. It is paramount to encourage the child to continue with their task, despite their anxiety or difficulties. If parents take over, it does not allow the child to maturate coping skills.
– Behave in a way that displays positivity and calmness when the child is anxious, or when the parent is in a stressful situation themselves
– Ongoing positive reinforcement and reassurance