What is anxiety?
Feelings of anxiety among children are preventable and treatable.
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It is natural for children to feel worried and anxious at times, about things like friendships, speaking in front of a crowd or taking an exam. It’s when the worrying continues and makes everyday life hard that anxiety becomes a problem. The good news is that with the right professional help and through developing positive coping skills, anxiety is treatable.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the feeling you get when you’re worried or scared about something. It is a natural, human feeling of fear or panic. Afterwards, we usually calm down and feel better.
Small amounts of worry and fear can help keep us safe and even protect us from danger. But sometimes anxiety can make us feel like things are worse than they actually are and can feel overwhelming. Constant worry can lead to prolonged anxiety.
If anxiety is preventing your child from doing things they enjoy or they feel worried or panicky in a situation that is not stressful, then it’s important to get support to help them feel better.
What causes anxiety?
It can be hard to pinpoint the exact causes of anxiety. When we face stressful situations, alarm bells go off in our brain telling us something isn’t right and that we need to deal with it. To make the difficult situation go away, our brain makes us more alert, stops us from thinking about other things and even pumps more blood to our legs to help us run away.
Anxiety in children and adolescents
Children can feel anxious about different things at different ages. Many of these worries are a natural part of growing up.
From the age of around 6 months to 3 years it's very common for young children to have separation anxiety. They may become clingy and cry when separated from their parents or caregivers. This is a normal stage in a child's development and should stop by the time they reach around 2 to 3 years old.
It's also common for preschool-age children to develop specific fears or phobias, including animals, insects, storms, heights, water, blood and the dark. These fears usually go away gradually on their own.
Many children feel anxious when going to a new school or before exams. Some children feel shy in social situations.
If your child does not outgrow common fears and worries, or if it starts interfering with school, home or play, it may mean they need support from a mental health professional.
Remember, only a doctor or a mental health professional can diagnose a mental health condition, so don’t hesitate to ask your health-care provider for advice if you are worried about your child.
Signs and symptoms of anxiety in kids
Anxiety symptoms can be complicated and may even arise long after a stressful event. Here are some of the common signs and symptoms:
- Shortness of breath, headaches or feeling faint
- A racing heart and sometimes high blood pressure
- Feeling fidgety, trembling or feeling weak in the legs
- Feeling sick in your stomach – cramps, diarrhoea or frequent visits to the bathroom
- Having trouble sleeping or a reduced appetite
- Dry mouth, excessive sweating or feeling hot.
Emotional and mental:
- Struggling to focus on things – lack of concentration
- Feeling panicky, nervous or on edge
- Feeling overwhelmed or a sense of dread
- Feeling out of control in a situation
- Feeling tired and grumpy
Anxiety feels different for everyone. It is natural to feel more or less anxious than others about the same situation.
Anxious children tend to need constant reassurance from their parents and caregivers. Because they may also be quiet and eager to please, their condition can be easy to miss. Be alert to the signs of anxiety so you can seek help and care for your child early if needed.
Ways to help your child cope
If your child is feeling anxious, the first thing you can do is remind them is that the feeling will pass. This will help to soothe them and feel less anxious. There are things you can do to help them cope and be better prepared.
- Explore the feeling together: Ask your child to observe their feelings of anxiety and tell you – what is happening when they feel anxious, how do they feel, how long does the feeling last and what might be the reason for feeling anxious? The more they can understand the feeling and feel safe, the easier it can be to manage it.
- Shift the focus: Because they cannot control their feelings, anxious children often ask themselves questions they cannot answer, like “why is this happening” or “why me?” Asking questions like “What would you like to have for dinner?” can help them feel empowered and to focus on the present.
- Support healthy habits: Sleep and eating well can positively influence anxious feelings, as we often feel exhausted after feeling anxious for prolonged periods of time. Experts recommend nine to 12 hours of sleep a night for 6- to 12-year-olds. Teens need eight to 10 hours a night. To protect sleep time, limit screen time at night and avoid keeping digital devices in the bedroom.
- Help them use their senses: Our senses are powerful tools to deal with feelings of panic, anxiety and stress. Here’s an easy way to encourage your child to use them:
Ask your child to sit comfortably and slowly breathe in and out. Now ask them to name some non-distressing things: 4 things they can see, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell and 1 thing they can taste.
- Practice belly breathing: Often when we are anxious our breathing becomes shallow, high in our chests, and we forget to breathe deeply into our abdomens. Abdominal breathing is very calming and helps us to draw oxygen deep into our lungs. Here’s an easy 3-step process:
- Place your hand on your stomach
- Take 5 deep breaths, spend 5 seconds breathing in and 5 seconds breathing out, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth
- Explain that when your child inhales, they are blowing up their tummy softly like a balloon, and when they exhale the air is going slowly out of the balloon again.
When to seek professional help
If anxiety is impacting your child’s daily life, professional treatment can make a huge difference. Your health-care provider can refer you to a mental health professional for an assessment and advice on treatment that is right for your child. If your child is offered counselling or talk therapy, they can speak with a trained mental health professional about what they are feeling and ways to cope.
As a parent, it is important to know that your child’s feelings of anxiety is not a reflection of your parenting and that your child is not reacting with anxiety on purpose or to seek attention. It can be a stressful and serious situation, but with your attention, love and care, anxiety can be managed and overcome.