Supporting Our Children In Managing Their Anxiety

24 June 2015 by , No Comments

Where did those worry free days of childhood go? Where did those long summer days of lazing, playing and getting dirty go? Those days and times are still there for some children, but not for others. Anxiety and stress in children is becoming a serious topic of discussion due to the increasing numbers in our society. On average 1 in 6 children suffer from anxiety severe enough to interfere with their lives. Given this increasing problem, teachers, psychologists, counsellors and parents are being trained to recognize and intervene earlier with the hope of reducing anxiety in children.

What Does Anxiety Look Like?

Children and teens with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) worry excessively about health, school, personal harm and/or accidents happening either to themselves or their parents. Their worries become uncontrollable and may interfere in their lives. For example they may stick close to home just in case anything bad happens. These children may worry about Mom getting cancer or Dad being in a car accident. As well, they may worry that they will fail tests at school or obtain poor grades even when they are doing well. Other common worries include fear of a natural disaster or their house being burglarized or one of their loved ones being kidnapped. In young children, separation anxiety may be more common whereby they do not want to be apart from their parent and tend to be very clingy. With teens they may feel that there is something wrong with them or that they’re going crazy, which further increases their anxiety.

If your child has anxiety you may hear statements like “what if Mom goes out and doesn’t come home”, or “what if you forget to pick me up at school” or “what if I forget everything I’ve studied” or “what if I’m the last to be picked on the team” or “what if my best friend gets angry with me”. Everyone goes through phases of stress and change; however, children who are anxious display their worries consistently for longer periods of time and with intense emotion compared to other children. It also becomes an issue when it is interfering in their enjoyment in normal life experiences.

Common physical symptoms of anxiety in children include stomach aches, headaches, difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep, restlessness, anger outbursts and/or difficulties focusing or concentrating. Some children develop rituals such as checking the door to see if it is locked several times, asking parents excessively if they love them or will be on time, or arranging stuffed animals excessively before bed.

Parenting Tips

Help your child deal with their feelings. Children need to realize that anxiety is an emotion just like sadness, happiness or excitement. Give them permission to express their strong emotions appropriately. Some children hold back their worries because they fear that someone may get angry at them if they do so. Alternatively, if their anxiety is coming out as anger allow them to stomp on bubble wrap, rip up paper or throw something soft. Then they may be more open to sharing what their fears or worries really are. A open, non-judgmental attitude coming from you as a parent opens the door to expression of their feelings.
Encourage your child to take small risks. When your child steps out of their comfort zone when they are experiencing anxiety, they learn the valuable lesson that they can do it. Start with situations that are less scary for them and build up to more difficult experiences. For example, you may start with encouraging your son or daughter to pay the cashier for a small purchase with you by their side, and then after several times you may wait at the door while they complete the same task. Celebration of their effort and successes goes a long way to reinforce these behaviors. With time and confidence they may actually begin to enjoy the task as their belief in themselves increases. It is important to be aware that children with anxiety generally set high standards for themselves and may get discouraged if they are not perfect.
With older children you can teach them to challenge their ‘anxiety voice’. Ask them questions such as “what is the worst thing that could happen”, “do you have any evidence that this has ever occurred?”, “what else could happen besides what the anxiety voice is telling you?”
Role play with your child various ways they could handle anxiety producing situations. Try out many options making some of them silly and playful to help alleviate some of the anxiety.
Create a tool box of coping strategies. Help your child to write them on paper so your child can read them when they become anxious. Common strategies may include naming the worried voice as a pesky bug that you have control over, repeating phrases such as “I can do it” or “I’ll get through this”, remembering that anxiety cannot hurt you and will not last forever, and recording activities that help them calm down (i.e., deep breathing, music, reading, hot baths).

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