Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems in children and teenagers. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, around 1 in 8 children suffer from anxiety at some point in their lives. If untreated, this anxiety can lead to serious problems in life including depression, increased likelihood of substance abuse, missed opportunities in career and relationships, and a general decrease in the quality of life.
Fortunately, anxiety is relatively easy to treat – especially if detected early. The only problem is that most parents don’t detect it early enough. As such, it keeps festering slowly for years, and by the time it manifests, it is quite advanced. Therefore, it is imperative for a parent to pay keen attention to their child, so that they can notice any early manifestations of anxiety. The starting point is understanding what anxiety is. So, the ultimate question is:
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a normal, natural reaction to a stressful situation. We all experience anxiety from time to time. When we perceive something to be stressful, our body releases a hormone called adrenaline. This hormone prepares the body for a fight or flight response. Anxiety isn’t actually a bad thing. There are certain situations where it can actually be beneficial.
Anxiety about a forthcoming test can motivate you to work harder, and thus perform better. When crossing a busy street, a little anxiety can keep you focused, alert and decrease your chances of getting run over.
The problem arises when we fail to effectively cope with anxiety. As such, rather than becoming a positive influence, it can become debilitating. For children and teenagers, the effect can even be worse – since they are often not equipped with the life skills to positively handle their anxiety.
Basically, anxiety can broadly be divided into two types i.e. normal anxiety and abnormal anxiety. In children and teens, understanding these two types is critical if early potential anxiety problems are to be effectively dealt with. Let’s take time to consider the two types of anxiety.
Normal Anxiety in Children and Teens
Being anxious is part and parcel of growing up. As children begin to explore the world, they will encounter unfamiliar situations. The normal reaction to these situations is feeling anxious. The anxiety will typically manifest in three forms i.e. the physical, mental and behavioral.
Physical manifestations are bodily reactions to anxiety-inducing situations. These reactions are typically unpleasant, and arise from the effect of adrenaline on the body. They include heart palpitations, feeling tense, breathing difficulties, feeling shaky, stomach cramps, feeling sick, sweating, and feeling dizzy and breathing very fast.
The bodily reactions are designed to be normal. They are supposed to prepare the body for fight or flight responses. However, sometimes they trigger mental manifestations.
The mental manifestations are thoughts which accompany the feelings of anxiety, the mental state that results from insufficient coping skills when faced with a difficult challenge. They are typically fearful or worrisome thoughts. For instance, a child can see a dog and think “It is going to bite me”.
The behavioral manifestations are basically the actions which children take in reaction to anxious situations. There are two most common behaviors are avoiding the anxiety inducing situations, or seeking reassurance from their parents.
As children grow up, there a numerous things which they will be anxious about. For instance, things which children commonly worry about include darkness, dogs, being on their own, ghosts and monsters. With time, they either outgrow these anxieties or learn to cope with them.
However, not all children outgrow or cope with their anxiety. Some become incapacitated by the anxiety. This is when anxiety becomes a problem.
When Anxiety Becomes a Problem
There are some tell-tale signs which indicate that a child or teenager is having anxiety problems. The common anxiety symptoms are the following:
- Somatic complaints such as constantly complaining about headaches or stomach aches – especially when they are about do something which they are uneasy about
- Sleep difficulties including trouble sleeping alone, having nightmares or difficulty falling asleep
- Constant worry and often needing reassurance
- Being afraid of, and frequently avoiding certain situations, or overeating to a situation
- Difficulty socializing with other children
- Reluctance to ask for help
- Occasional outbursts of anger
- Crying or clinging to the parent (specifically for your children)
- Experiencing sudden and frequent panic attacks.
Anxiety problems are often centered on specific situations. As such, the manifestations will usually be tied to specific situations. In children and teenagers, anxiety can be divided into the following categories.
Separation anxiety – this is anxiety which arises from being separated from their parental figure. In younger children, it arises from the fear of being away from their parents. In teens, it can manifest in the fear of something happening to their parents e.g. the fear of dread, accidents or imminent death.
School anxiety – this is anxiety which arises in relation to the school environment. Its causes can range from a fear that other kids will not like them, to a fear of being bullied or humiliated; or not being able to cope with school work, for example test anxiety, mathematical anxiety.
Social anxiety – this is anxiety which arises from social situations. It is typically manifested by stranger anxiety, nervousness when interacting with strangers, or reluctance to join other children in play.
Fears and Phobias – this is anxiety which arises out of debilitating fear of real or imaginary threats. However real fear is not the same as anxiety… Some real threats may be dogs, while imaginary threats may be loud noises, or ghost.
Generalized anxiety – this is being anxious about anything and everything. Children who have generalized anxiety are constantly feeling anxious. However, they cannot seem to put a finger on the thing which is causing them to be anxious.
How to Help a Child with Anxiety Problems
Helping children with anxiety requires patience, tact and keenness. On the one hand, there is need to help the child to effectively deal with the anxiety-arousing situations. On the other hand, there is need to avoid the child becoming overly dependent on the parent. The following tips can help a child or teenager to effectively deal with anxiety.
1. Identify the anxiety trigger
Anxiety rarely occurs in a vacuum. There is often something which triggers it. As such, the first step towards helping the child is to identify the trigger. This can be done through either observation or asking the child.
2. Understand the child’s perception of threat
To an adult, feeling anxious about a ghost seems quite silly. However, some children think that ghosts are real. Therefore, for an adult to help a child such an anxiety, they have to empathize with the child. The same principle applies to any other trigger for anxiety. You need to understand the child’s perception – even if you know that it is erroneous. Encourage them to talk about how they feel; this is the only way you can get into their minds.
3. Provide reassurance
Once you understand the child’s perception, you can now address them by providing reassurances. Assure them that it is normal to feel the way they do. Then go ahead and provide them with positive encouragement. Inform them that everything will be alright.
4. Encourage the child to face to face their fears
The best way to empower the child is by teaching them how to cope with it. One way is through encouraging them to face their fears. This is the only way they can learn that anxious feelings can be effectively handled. Therefore, you shouldn’t avoid situations simply because it makes the child anxious. Take the child into anxiety-arousing situations, and provide reassurances, even as you help her to face them.
5. Model healthy ways of handling anxiety
Children learn mostly by imitation. As such, the best way a parent can do is to show children how to handle anxiety. The starting point is the parent’s own anxiety. A parent who, when faced with stressful situations, panics and loses her cool is likely to pass on that to the children. If a child observes a parent getting overwhelmed by anxiety, it will become difficult for her to effectively handle hers.
6. Don’t reinforce the child’s fears
Some parents use a child’s fears as motivation to make them do certain things. For instance, a parent who knows that a child is afraid of dogs may say things like “if you don’t go to bed, I’ll go outside and bring a dog.” Such things just worsen a child’s anxiety. Therefore, you should try to alleviate the child’s anxiety – not encourage them.
7. Seek professional help
The above 7 tips can be used for helping children with anxiety problems. These are tips to help a parent handle their child’s natural response to their environment and situations around them, and should in no way replace expert help if needed.
If the child’s anxiety levels are beyond normal, then the best course is to seek help from a counselor or psychologist.
In a nutshell, anxiety is a natural response to stressful situations. In children and teenagers, feeling anxious is a normal part of growing up. However, it is when anxiety interferes with the child’s development that it becomes problematic. In such cases, unless properly handled, it can lead to an anxiety disorder that can cause numerous problems later in life. So helping children with anxiety problems in a sympathetic and encouraging way is part and parcel of effective parenting.