In this technological age of instant news and social media at our fingertips, children are bombarded daily with news of school shootings, bombings, war, nuclear threats, genocide, and political extremism. At school and in their neighborhoods children experience peer pressure, bullying, and social isolation.
As a result there is a continued increase in the diagnosis of anxiety related disorders in children beginning in early middle school. Chronic anxiety can interfere with a child’s education as well as relationships with friends and family.
What does anxiety look like in children?
Anxiety is more than “nervousness.” Children exhibit a wide variety of symptoms including those listed below. If symptoms seem out of proportion with the situation or continue for long periods of time, seek support from your pediatrician or mental health provider.
- Being easily startled
- Clingy behavior with family members or care providers
- Concerns about friends, school, or activities such as having conversations, meeting new people, being observed eating or drinking, performing in front of others such as giving a speech, etc.
- Constant thoughts and fears about their safety or the safety of their parents or siblings
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
- Feeling as though there is a lump in the throat
- Frequent stomach aches, headaches, or other physical complaints
- Lack of concentration
- Muscle aches or tension
- Refusing to go to school
- Sleep problems including both difficulty falling asleep or difficulty staying asleep
- Worry about sleeping away from home
- Worrying about things that haven’t happened
What causes anxiety in children?
Risk for experiencing anxiety increases with parental anxiety. Children who experience hypersensitivity to textures, smells, light, and touch are likely to have increased anxiety.
Children who have experienced trauma experience higher rates of anxiety as are those who experience over or under protected. When schedules are too rigid, over scheduling, or under scheduled resulting in a chaotic environment, anxiety is likely to flourish.
Perceived loss of control is also an environmental source of anxiety including frequent moves, instability in caretakers, divorce, foster care, living through natural disasters such as fire, flood, hurricane, etc.
How can I help my child?
- Support good sleep hygiene by limiting screens during the last hour before bed, maintaining a regular bedtime, and engaging in calming activities before bed. A Mayo Clinic study indicates that children 7-12 years old should get 10-11 hours of sleep each night and 12-18 years need 8-10 hours per night.
- Encourage outdoor exercise such as taking walks, riding bicycles, playing games with other youth.
- Improve nutrition by increasing water and decreasing sugar and caffeine,
- Engage in positive activities such as playing catch, reading aloud, playing a game, etc. several times per week.
- Develop healthy attitudes towards failure. Encourage your child to “Keep Trying!”
- Learn and practice calming skills such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, paced breathing.
- Learn to cope ahead; plan and prepare for anxiety triggering situations.
- Talk through emotions. Support your child in learning to identify current emotions and then to rate them from 1-5 to help understand the depth of their feelings.
- Practice affirmations such as:
- I’m okay right now.
- It’s ok if everything doesn’t go as planned.
- I have the ability to cope with what happens in my life.
- Enjoyable surprises often come from new situations.
What if self-help is not enough?
Although it is typical for children to experience anxiety at times, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is (CBT) is often necessary when anxiety becomes unmanageable and begins to interfere with a child’s social functioning. CBT is an evidence based treatment that focuses on identifying, understanding and then changing thinking and behavior. Clients are actively involved in their recovery by practicing assignments between sessions.
With support, children can overcome the challenges of anxiety and learn to manage their thoughts and their behaviors.