We all experience some degree of anxiety from time to time.
Anxiety is a general, unpleasant emotional and physical state of heightened arousal. It may be caused by thoughts about a past or current event or a potential future threat.
When faced with a genuine imminent danger or threat, being anxious is a completely normal reaction. The so-called “fight-or-flight” response primes the body for action and enables a quick and powerful response.
In fact, at low-to-moderate levels, anxiety can be useful and adaptive. Occasional levels of mild anxiety can even help to improve performance.
However, when a child is suffering from sustained levels of anxiety that interfere with their daily activities or healthy development, this is a more serious problem that must be addressed to avoid more serious long term harm.
So what is an excessive level of anxiety?
Recognising Excessive Child Anxiety
A child suffering from excessive anxiety will have ongoing stressful thoughts over which they have no control. These thoughts may be accompanied by restlessness, rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, upset stomach/nausea, sweating, or irritability.
The combination of negative thoughts plus physical symptoms often results in feelings of helplessness, which in turn result in avoidance behaviours.
This pattern is known as the “anxiety cycle”.
A few facts about anxiety in children:
- About 6-10% of children and adolescents experience one or more anxiety disorders.
- Anxiety disorders are more common in boys than girls.
- Separation anxiety, selective mutism, and simple phobias are more common among pre-adolescents.
- Generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social phobia are more common among adolescents.
- Different anxiety disorders often co-occur together.
- Anxiety disorders often co-occur with other disorders, such as depression, autism, AD/HD, and conduct disorder.
The Good News About Child Anxiety
Studies have shown that about 90% of children who experience anxiety can overcome their fears, worries, and anxious feelings by learning effective coping skills.
On the other hand, when children don’t learn any coping skills and don’t learn how to manage their anxious feelings, they are more likely to develop other serious problems such as depression or substance abuse.
How Can I Help My Anxious Child?
Parenting an anxious child is not easy. Your child may not have yet developed the communication skills required to tell you how they are feeling. In many cases they are not even fully aware of their own anxious thoughts and feelings.
Here are a few tips to help your anxious child:
- Understand – to be able to help your child, you need to understand the causes of your child’s anxiety, why these feelings are maintained and how you can help your child break the anxiety cycle.
- Monitor – keep a diary of your child’s worries and fears. Try to get as much information as possible from your child. You can ask:
- What were you doing?
- What were you thinking?
- How did you feel?
- On a level from 1-10, how bad was the feeling?
- Educate – teach your child how to replace negative thoughts and behaviours with more positive thoughts and responses to break the anxiety cycle.
- Seek Help – an experienced developmental psychologist can help your child to identify the triggers and maintaining factors for their anxiety and to learn effective coping skills to reduce their impact.
If your child’s anxiety is stopping them from engaging in age-appropriate activities (such as going to school or socialising with friends) you should consult an experienced child psychologist for advice. In some cases it may also be appropriate to consult a child psychiatrist.
- Dacey, J.S., & Fiore, L.B. (2002). Your anxious child. How parents and teachers can relieve anxiety in children. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, USA
- Carr, A. (2011). The handbook of child and adolescent clinical psychology. Routledge: USA