What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an inherent response to a perceived threat and normal levels of anxiety can assist people to be more focused and motivated, and to solve problems more efficiently. Everybody experiences anxiety sometimes, especially when faced with unfamiliar, dangerous or stressful situations. Most of the anxiety that children and young people feel is relatively mild.
Prior to about age eight, children usually do not engage in anticipatory anxiety which involves worrying hours, days or perhaps weeks ahead of an event or situation. As they age they worry about different things such as getting sick or hurt, and later as teenagers they worry about things like war or family relationships.
High levels or chronic anxiety can reduce your child’s capacity to respond appropriately or effectively to stressful situations, or even normal routine activities. A highly anxious person for example may experience constant physical feelings of panic and may seek to avoid anything that might trigger their anxiety such as
- being alone
- going to school
- talking in front of a group
Anxiety symptoms may be overlooked especially if a child is quiet and compliant. As a result, they may not receive the help and support they need, which may lead to problems with anxiety in adolescence and adulthood. Anxiety commonly co-occurs with other disorders such as depression, eating disorders, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
What types of anxiety disorders are there?
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common types of mental health concerns for children and young people. If symptoms of anxiety have become entrenched and chronic, an anxiety disorder may develop with the risk of long-term impacts including:
- performing poorly in school
- missing out on important social experiences
- experiencing depression and relationship problems
- engaging in substance abuse
If your child’s anxiety starts to disrupt their daily life they may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. Types of anxiety disorders include:
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
A child with GAD worries excessively about issues to do with aspects of their life, either past, present, or future. They may worry about things like past conversations or actions, upcoming events, school, family, health, their own health, competence in sports or academics, and world events. A child with GAD may find it hard to manage their worrying and the amount of time that they spend worrying, which ultimately interferes with their daily life.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
In response to significant stressful events such as natural disasters or personal traumas, a child may develop a post-traumatic stress disorder. Many symptoms can accompany this such as panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, active avoidance of reminders of the trauma they went through, and nightmares. They may display heightened emotional responses as well as have memory and concentration difficulties.
Panic attacks and panic disorders
A panic attack is an episode of intense fear and discomfort, associated with physical symptoms and fearful thoughts. It can include shortness of breath, accelerated heart rate, trembling, sweating, and dizziness, fear of going crazy or dying. Fear of panic attacks in public places may lead to agoraphobia.
Panic disorder is the recurrence of panic attacks amid persistent fears that a panic attack might occur. If a parent has this condition a child has a greater chance of developing it too, and stressful life events are also thought to contribute to the onset of panic disorder. If your child begins to avoid going places, and engaging in activities, seek professional assistance for them.
This is intense fear of becoming humiliated or embarrassed in social situations. It can start in early adolescence, but also may commence at a younger age. The child experiences an excessive level of shyness, and/or fear that they will do or say something in front of others that will be embarrassing. Other common fears experienced by young people with social phobias are fears about social situations such as parties, talking with authority figures such as teachers or a principal or fear of speaking to others in public. They may also display fear of using public amenities or fear of eating out or talking on the phone. Social phobia differs from shyness in that while people with shyness may be uneasy around others, they don’t actively avoid situations that make them feel uncomfortable.
Obsessive compulsive disorder
This involves the presence of persistent, repeating thoughts, impulses or images (obsessions) that are intrusive and unwanted to the young person. It usually includes repetitive and ritualistic behaviours or mental acts (compulsions) that are used to reduce the discomfort. These behaviours are time consuming and distressing e.g. fears of contamination or harm to self or others may involve excessive hand washing, or showering.
Children may experience specific phobias, which are intense, irrational fears of certain things or situations, (e.g., dogs, bees, injections, the dark, escalators, tunnels, flying, etc.). Children may not realize that fear of such objects are unreasonable. Typically, children or adolescents will become extremely distressed when confronted with the feared object or situation.
Let your kids know you care and remain approachable.
How to tell if a young person is anxious
Anxiety may manifest as a number of physical symptoms including:
- muscle tension; shaking/ trembling, heart palpitations
- sweating/flushing/blushing; feeling very hot or cold
- feelings of choking; dizziness
- rapid breathing, shortness of breath, or breath holding
- difficulty concentrating
- restlessness; being easily startled
- numbness or ‘pins and needles’ in arms and legs
- recurring headaches, stomach aches, backaches
- fatigue; sleeping difficulties
- using the toilet more frequently
In addition, children and young people experiencing anxiety may display a number of behavioural symptoms including:
- in young children – clinging to parents; tantrums
- refusing to go to school
- withdrawing from friends and family
- avoiding particular objects/situations
- substance misuse
- seeking reassurance
- negativity; pessimism
Things parents can do
The following three steps can assist you to help your child with anxiety:
- Encourage them to talk about their anxiety – Share the things that as a child you were anxious about and ask them what their biggest worry is. By modelling your own calm acceptance of anxiety you will be assisting them to remain calm about theirs.
- Teach your child about anxiety and its purpose – Educate yourself about anxiety and its adaptive role in helping humans survive (flight-fight-freeze). Explain the physical changes in the human body when danger is perceived (sweaty hands, blood to extremities, rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing etc.). By explaining these you are helping to normalise anxiety as well as assisting your child to identify and understand the way their own body reacts when anxious.
- Help your child to recognize their anxiety and to develop ways to manage it . Ask your child to sketch their body and mark on it where their anxiety occurs, and is most felt. Teach them ways to work with their anxiety. For example a young child might learn to say: “That’s just ‘Mr Worry’ telling me not to do that. I don’t want to miss out so ‘Mr Worry’ you can just be quiet”. Or a teenager might liken their worrying thoughts to a radio with the volume turned up high, and learn to manage it by turning the volume down. Acquire the Mindshift app suitable for iPhones and iPads, which is designed to help teens and young adults, identify their anxiety, and also offers ways to assist them to cope.
Other things you can do to help
- Learn to manage your own anxiety, thus role modelling to your child that it can be achieved, which in turn helps reduce their anxieties
- Encourage good eating (reduce caffeinated, high sugar drinks and foods), regular exercise, hobbies, sufficient sleep and connection with friends. When young people are well-rested and relaxed, they will be in a better mental state to handle fears or worries
- Let your children and young people know who they can call on for support if needed. This will make them feel less anxious about the future.
- Visit your GP if you suspect that your child is suffering from an anxiety disorder
Calm conversations with your kids will always be more productive.
Keen for more help?
- Anxiety Centre – Anxiety information and resources
- Help Guide – Anxiety attack and disorder information
- KidsHealth – Helping kids handle worry
- Raising Children Network – an Australian parenting website
- Headspace – visit the website for help, support and information about young people and mental health
- Kids in Mind – phone 3163 1640 (part of the Mater Child and Youth Mental Health Service)
- Reach Out – a website designed to help improve the understanding of issues relating to mental health and wellbeing
- Youth Beyondblue – phone 1300 224 636 (24 hour information and referral about depression and anxiety)
- Parentline Tip Sheet: Social Anxiety – http://www.parentline.com.au/parenting-information/tip-sheets/social-anxiety.php
- MindShift http://www.anxietybc.com/mobile-app an app for iPhones and iPads to assist young people manage their anxiety
- Worry Wise Kids
Parenting brings joys and challenges. Stay strong and love your kids.