Friday, March 9, 2012

Children and Anxiety

Children and Anxiety

Anxiety is painful. Unfortunately, we often don’t recognize this painful disorder in children because it presents very differently than it does in adults.
Children who are anxious may be described by their parents and teachers as lazy, inattentive, restless, whiney, hyper, and/ or non-cooperative. In my work with children I am seeing an in-crease 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 such as generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, separation anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, specific phobia, panic disorder, acute and posttraumatic stress disorders.
In this 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:
Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
Poor sleep
Complaint of physical discomfort such as stomach aches, headaches, and muscle aches
Memory problems
Biting one’s nails, picking at cuticles, scratching oneself
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. When school situations are a part of the anxiety/fear avoidance usually results in disliking anything connected with school; 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. Early intervention is key. If you think your child is suffering with anxiety, seek professional guidance.
Additional suggestions to consider in supporting your child include:
Children feel less anxious when the family has a regular routine and provides structure such as regular bedtimes, meal times, and homework time.
Provide ample time during your child’s day to experience unstructured play or creative activities.
Allow for release of nervous energy on the playground and/ or outside.
Focus on the positive. Have some time during each day when the family discusses “The best thing about their day.”
Assist your child in creating a Gratitude Journal. Each day the child writes or tells you about five things for which they are grateful. Changing one’s thoughts dramatically changes behaviors.
Limit “Screen Time” The anxious child learns unhealthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress when allowed to sit for hours watching television or playing games. More than an
hour of screen time a day is considered excessive by many studies.
Teach your child relaxation strategies and self-soothing techniques. You can do this via yoga moves, deep breathing exercises, creative visualization and positive self-talk. A great site for assistance with this is
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. You may want to seek assistance in these efforts.
Become aware of the negative statements your child is giving him or herself. Anxious individuals feed negative messages to themselves about things that might happen thus feeding their fear, discomfort and avoidance.
Most importantly, 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 man-aging their fears until their own are manageable.

If you have already tried many different approaches with your child and continue to see symptoms of anxiety, please seek assistance. Your child doesn’t have to experience this painful condition.

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