Sunday, August 29, 2010

Children and Anxiety

As yet another school year approaches; everyone prepares to return to school. Families buy school supplies, children express feelings of eagerness or angst, and educators begin extensive planning for the new group of students entering their classrooms. It’s a busy time.

I remember well how I felt each August as I awaited the beginning of a new school year. I was a very anxious kid, and as some of you may know, I wasn’t very fond of school. Well, that really is quite an understatement. I HATED school. Prior to the beginning of each school year I whined a lot and had nightmares. Due to my behaviors, I am sure my parents felt like whining a lot as well as strangling me to put us all out of our misery.

Ironically, I became a teacher and each year before school started, I whined a lot and had nightmares. I was filled with excitement but overwhelmed myself with the amount of work that I had to do prior to the children coming. I questioned my competence as a teacher as well as, my ability to live up to the expectations of my administrators, the children, the parents, but most of all, myself.
Looking back, I realize that my fears and problems were born out of a basic sense of insecurity, anxiety and underlying it all PERFECTIONISM! My hope is that you don’t in anyway identify with what I am saying. I also hope that your child is not exhibiting any signs or symptoms of anxiety, as I did. Anxiety is painful.

Unfortunately, in my work with children I am seeing an increase in anxiety. It may well be that I have learned to better identify anxiety in children but, the trend of anxious children seems to have escalated. According to The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library site, Anxiety disorders are characterized by fear, worry, or dread that greatly impairs the ability to function normally and that is disproportionate to the circumstances at hand. Anxiety may result in physical symptoms. The site also states that, At some point during childhood, about 10 to 15% of children experience an anxiety disorder (eg, generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, separation anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, specific phobia, panic disorder, acute and posttraumatic stress disorders.

As you can see in the above definition there are several types of anxiety disorders. The one that will be addressed today is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, (GAD). Symptoms that may present in a child with this disorder are:

• Restlessness
• Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
• Hyperactivity
• Tremors
• Sweating
• Exhaustion
• Poor sleep
• Complaint of physical discomfort such as stomach aches, headaches, and muscle aches
• Memory problems
• Distortions of reality

The discomfort children feel with GAD is very real and is born out of fear. In order to cope with the painful feelings associated with anxiety/fear, they begin avoiding situations that they perceive contribute to feelings of discomfort. Avoidance usually results in disliking anything connected with school, and possibly school refusal, disinterest in extracurricular activities, truancy, self-imposed social isolation, an “I don’t care attitude,” alliance with fringe groups, or use of alcohol and other drugs. In this frenzy of avoidance, the child is left feeling incompetent and unfulfilled. Such feelings can eventually lead to or coexist with depression.

As always, early intervention is key. If you think your child is suffering with anxiety, please seek professional help. Additional suggestions include:

• Provide ample time during your child’s day to experience unstructured play or creative activites.
• Allow for release of nervous energy on the playground and/ or outside.
• Teach your child or classroom self –soothing techniques. You can do this via yoga moves, deep breathing exercises, creative visualization and positive self-talk.
• Always respond to your child’s refusals and fears with compassion and tenderness. Respond by acknowledging their fear but, with the expectation that they can be successful.
• Do not enable your child to remain in a state of avoidance. Seek assistance in these efforts.
• Become aware of the negative statements your child is giving him or herself. Anxious individuals continually feed negative messages to themselves that terrible things are going to happen thus feeding their fear, discomfort and avoidance.
• Pay attention to your own level of anxiety. Do you worry excessively? Are you suffering with depression? Are you able to model coping strategies and self-soothing strategies for your child? Has anyone expressed concern about the amount of alcohol you consume? If you grew up as highly anxious, you may think that the way you feel is normal and have difficulty recognizing your own anxiety. It is very difficult for a parent to assist a child in managing their fears until their own are manageable.

Once again, if you have tried many different approaches with your child without success, please seek assistance. Your child doesn’t have to experience this painful condition.


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