Anxiety and stress are common realities for many adults, and we can understand that these issues are in the #1 spot for the most prevalent mental health concerns. What may not seem as obvious is that this statistic is also true for children. Anxiety disorders impact about 13% of our children and youth – and it is safe to say that ‘stress’ impacts an even higher number. And this statistic is growing.
The needs of anxious children often go undetected and untreated. This could be due to two factors:
- Children with anxiety and unrelenting stress are not often on adults’ radar screens because these youngsters are generally quiet and compliant, and consequently do not come to adults’ attention as quickly as other children do; and
- Many adults do not take kid-stress seriously, choosing to believe that children are carefree and resilient. And, on the most part, children are strong and quick to recover; however, given the conditions of some environments in which these children find themselves, many of them are not able to easily slough off the cares of living…they absorb it, they take it personally, and they are suffering.
As a result, many children never receive the support and assistance that they desperately need. This not only interferes with their ability to function optimally at the present time, but also increases the likelihood of experiencing the casualty of other serious issues later on.
Anxiety, whether you are an adult or a child, is defined as a feeling of apprehension, worry, or concern about an uncertain future event. There is a perception of threat. And it is a very normal and healthy reaction to anticipated experiences – it is a survival mechanism that usually serves us very well. Anxiety becomes a ‘disorder’ when it becomes extreme and begins to interfere with the individual’s quality of life and ability to function …when so-called normal stresses, worries, and fears interfere with the ability to work, play, learn, and maintain relationships. Therefore, our goal is never to eliminate anxiety (or even moderate amounts of stress) in our children, or in ourselves…rather, we need to learn how to manage it…control it…and develop the skills and locate the resources to cope with it in a healthy way.
Sometimes it seems that a child just develops an anxiety problem ‘overnight’ – there does not appear to be an obvious and specific cause. Other times, it develops slowly, insidiously over time, with layers and layers of stresses, worries, and fears.
What kind of child is more likely to develop anxiety? There are biological and environmental factors involved in this evolution:
- Children may be genetically ‘wired’ to be vulnerable to the disorder.
- Children who are, by temperament, sensitive, shy, intuitive, and cautious.
- Children who live in environments (home, school, community) that nurture the growth of anxiety – it seems like it is a learned behaviour that is reinforced by some family members.
- Children who experience ‘too much information’ – some children are given more information than they need in some situations; some children are allowed to absorb too much media information.
- Children who are not given the opportunity to learn independence – their families over-function for them and are overly-protective, thus inhibiting the development of autonomy and confidence.
- Children who experience erratic, chaotic, unpredictable, and inconsistent family life may not be able to feel secure.
Signs to watch for:
The hallmark of anxiety (adult or child) is avoidance. Avoidance is manifested in behaviours such as procrastination, perfectionism, school refusal, under-achievement, and complaints of illness. Other signs that anxiety could be at work are problems with learning and memory; demonstrations of agitation, anger, frustration, and restlessness. Issues with eating and sleeping, resulting in irritability and fatigue, can also be present.
Parents and other caregivers are searching for ways to be of assistance to children with anxiety or extreme stress. The last thing we want to do is to make the child more anxious or more stressed. Two overall concepts assist us in supporting a person with anxiety. First of all, the opposite of anxiety is not peacefulness, tranquility, or relaxation. Rather, it is confidence. Self-assurance in our ability to solve problems and to cope with the curves in the road is a sure way to keep anxiety at bay. Secondly, a helpful image to use as a foundation for providing support for a person with anxiety is to see anxiety as a mathematical formula:
If an event is seen (perceived) to be bigger, or more threatening than it really is AND our perceived ability to cope or our list of resources is quite minimal, the anxiety level will be high. If the numerator in this equation can be reduced and/or if the denominator and be increased, anxiety will not have as much power. The most powerful part of this equation is the denominator …the part that confidence plays in effectively coping with anxiety.
With these two concepts in mind, following are some general strategies that can guide our interactions with a child who is anxious.
- Help the child develop a realistic picture of exactly what is the threat or what is feared
- Teach your child about anxiety so that they can recognize it for what it is and how it works – information is very powerful
- Engage in problem-solving activities around what solutions to try; what resources to call upon
- Allow the child to have some choices and to have some control over part of the issue of concern
- Take every opportunity to build skills, independence, and confidence
- Avoid avoidance – fears must be faced
- Provide lots of positive feedback (these children’s heads are already full of negative chatter)
- Develop a predictable and consistent routine (eating, sleeping, exercising) that also includes time for fun, relaxation and socializing. Children need to know that someone else is in control of their well-being.
- Model imperfection and confidence in your own behaviour – have the courage to make mistakes and be okay about it … Mistakes are just opportunities to learn something new, not something to be feared.
- Model the courage to say ‘I don’t know’! Children need to see you comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and not always having the answers.
Just a Thought …. The development of the skills to effectively manage life’s stresses and uncertainties will be one of your most important investments into your child’s legacy.
– by Alexandra Rathgeber
The contents of this article are the property of Willow Grove Counselling, Inc. and further reproduction is given through written permission only. Copyright © 2012