It’s estimated that almost a quarter of children experience anxiety more intensely and more often than other children.
Based on current figures, 1 in 7 children will grow up to have an anxiety disorder, with half of them experiencing their first symptoms by the age of 11 years, and some as young as 4 years.
Although these figures are sobering, it’s important to remember that some anxiety is normal. Nearly all young children develop transient or short-lived fears, which pass after a few months. For example, it’s entirely normal for toddlers to become upset when they hear loud noises, meet a stranger or get separated from their primary carer. And during the preschool to early school years it’s common to see fears emerge of monsters or ghosts, being on their own, or of the dark. Again, these fears typically pass with little intervention (although many parents recommend keeping a bottle of ‘monster spray’ handy to help this stage pass a little more easily!).
Research tells us that different types of anxiety tend to start at different ages. Disorders such as specific phobias and separation anxiety typically occur at a younger age, and are often related to what’s happening in the moment. For example, children with separation anxiety will protest, cry or struggle when being separated from mum or dad, or try to avoid going to school or preschool. As children grow, they also develop the capacity for abstract thought, and with it, an increased ability to worry. This means that by age eight they can imagine the future, and image bad things that could happen to them, or to the people they love.
One of the most common disorders, social anxiety, is when children become fearful and worried when they have to interact with other people, or when they’re the focus of attention. This can get in the way of schooling, friendships and having fun. Others begin to experience a more generalised anxiety, worrying about everything from school, to finances, to parents’ health to world events, and finding it difficult to switch off from their fears. Whatever the fear or worry, if anxiety begins to interfere with relationships or school or persists, then it’s becoming a problem.
Signs your child may have anxiety
If you answer yes to any of the following, it’s worth considering talking with your GP or paediatrician, or getting specialist help from a clinical psychologist who works with children:
- Frequently tries to avoid situations.
- Seems to need lots of support or constant reassurance.
- Seems more fearful of situations than his/her friends.
- Often has headaches/stomach aches or other aches and pains.
- Frequently irritable, has difﬁculty concentrating and seems tired.
- Often requests to go to sick bay at school, or asks to stay home.
- Has difﬁculty falling asleep, has frequent nightmares, or has trouble sleeping alone.
- Wants things to be perfect. For example, may avoid starting homework due to fear of making mistakes, repeatedly check their work, or take excessive amounts of time to complete tasks.
- Has difficulty speaking to adults, for example asking for help in the classroom.
- Finds it hard to make friends or to stay at a friend’s house.
- Has obsessive rituals. For example, many children enjoy avoiding stepping on pavement cracks, flicking light switches on and off, or organising their pencils by colour. However, children with anxiety will persist with quirky behaviours and become very distressed if they cannot complete them.
How can you help your child?
Remember that for all children, anxiety is a normal human experience. Research tells us that genetic vulnerability (for example, anxiety disorders in other family members), some temperaments, and being female can increase the risk of developing anxiety. But we also know that learning plays a very large role. Early intervention can be very effective. You can teach your child to manage anxiety, and for children who develop anxiety disorders, there are excellent programs – typically using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and stepladder techniques – that can provide you and your child with the tools to tackle and manage their anxiety.
If your child shows signs of anxiety, it’s important to acknowledge their fear, rather than dismiss, ignore or make fun of them. Children with anxiety tend to avoid the things that they fear, and as parents there are five simple traps to look out for:
Common parenting traps…
Letting your child avoid
Generally speaking, this tends to make things worse. Instead, gently encourage your child to do the things that make them anxious, without pushing too hard. For example, encourage your child to approach other children, introduce themselves and ask to play, and model how to smile and make eye contact.
Rushing in and overprotecting
When you help, it simply allows your child to avoid (see above). Build their confidence and self-esteem by encouraging your child to try and offer support and encouragement rather than doing things for them.
Criticising and shaming
Instead of criticising them for being afraid, praise your child for their effort (even when they didn’t succeed), for being brave and for facing things they find challenging. Having anxiety is tough, feeling ashamed just makes it harder.
Avoid negative labels
Telling your child or others that they are “shy”, ”quiet”, “a baby” or “difficult” suggests it’s your child, rather than their anxiety, that’s the problem. If your child has anxiety, it can significantly interfere with their ability to do day-to-day things, despite their very best efforts.
Don’t wait in the hope they will outgrow their anxiety – get support
Parenting a child with anxiety can be an exhausting journey, particularly if your child needs continuous reassurance, has sleep problems or requires you to provide constant emotional support. Early intervention is key, and can be accessed via your GP or paediatrician.
A free, private and confidential, telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people and their parents: 1800 55 1800 http://www.kidshelp.com.au
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