Anxiety is a normal and natural emotion that people of all ages experience. When you feel anxious, you are expecting something bad to happen. However while unpleasant, anxiety is not always an unhelpful emotion—it helps us stay out of danger and keeps us alert and motivated when we are in a stressful situation. While everyone experiences worries, some people find that they become anxious more easily, more often and more intensely.
People of different age groups worry about different things. School age children might worry about social situations at school, supernatural things (like ghosts), tests, physical harm, or being separated from their parents. Older kids and teens might worry about war, economic and political fears, family relationships, etc.
Even though all kids feel anxious from time to time, it is when these feelings get in the way of their daily lives that it becomes a cause for concern. For example, your child may need to extra support if they feel anxious more than other kids their age, are unable to participate in school or social activities, and their fears and worries seem out of proportion to the issue.
The experience of anxiety can be broken down into 3 basic elements.
- Physical (Body). Anxiety may appear as one or more of these physical symptoms: increased heart rate, trembling or shaking, tense muscles, stomach pain, nausea or digestive issues, rapid breathing, sweating, headaches and trouble sleeping.
- Cognitive (Thoughts). This refers to thinking that something bad will happen and forgetting that there are other possibilities. Anxiety can begin as a worrisome thought that won’t go away.
- Behavioural (Actions). Your child may have the urge to run away, withdraw, avoid or sometimes lash out in situations which make them uncomfortable.
These components inform the symptoms to look out for. You may have noticed that your child:
- Clings to you
- Asks for help with things they can do for themselves
- Doesn’t want to get ready for school
- Won’t go to sleep without a parent or another adult
- Often complains of stomach aches or headaches
- Prefers to watch others rather than have a go
- Is scared of the dark, dogs, injections, being alone, germs, tests
- Often cries over small things
- Always sees the dangerous or negative side of thing
When children feel anxious, a common response from the adults in their lives is to solve the problem. By helping children avoid scary situations, we deny them the opportunity to develop coping skills and prove to themselves that they can deal with the anxious thought the next time it comes up. Instead we should aim to provide them with tools to bring the anxiety down the manageable levels. Here are 4 strategies you might like to try with your child.
- Slow down. When your child is feeling overwhelmed or is having an outburst, encourage them to take a few slow, deep breaths to calm the physical symptoms of anxiety. Breathe in for three seconds sending the air deep down into the lungs and pushing out the belly, hold for three, and then breathe out for three seconds. Once they are feeling calmer, you can talk through what’s worrying them.
- Use the stepladder approach. Instead of avoiding the scary situation, try breaking it down into small achievable chunks and gradually working toward a goal. For example, if your child is afraid of the water and going swimming, you can start by just watching the other kids swim. As they feel more comfortable, get them to try dangling their legs in the water, then standing in the shallow end and so on. Give your child lots of praise for achieving each step on the ladder. Use rewards as an incentive for your child to move forward. Rewards might include another book at bedtime, a trip to the park, an extra episode of a TV show. Make sure to match the reward with the degree of difficulty, with a big reward for the most difficult step.
- Encourage positive thinking. Kids with anxiety can often get stuck on the ‘what-ifs’ of a situation or fixate on the worst-case scenario. You can help them challenge these thinking patterns by reminding them of times they’ve dealt with similar issues in the past and how things worked out fine. You can also help them challenge a scary thought with facts and evidence. Asking them questions like “What happened before?” and “What else might happen in this situation?” can encourage a child to engage in more helpful thinking about a situation.
- Help your child take charge. Consider ways in which you can make your child feel like they have control over the scary situation. For example, if your child is worried about intruders, make shutting and locking their bedroom window as part of their night-time routine.
If anxiety is having a serious impact on your child’s health and happiness, you might want to consider professional help. Of course, the psychologists at Sydney Children’s Practice are always happy to help children and families with these challenges.