Anxiety is an emotion characterised by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.
Childhood anxiety disorders involve excessive fear or anxiety that differs from what is normal for developmental age. They may avoid certain situations out of worry or seek excessive reassurance, experience difficulty with change, nightmares and difficulty going to sleep. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat, headaches or tummy aches.
However, childhood anxiety is not a disorder within itself and it is normal for all children to experience developmentally appropriate levels of worry and anxiety, especially when trying something new.
Expressions of Anxiety Vary with Age
Pre-schoolers: express anxiety by crying, screaming, throwing objects, self-harm, tantrums, withdrawal, hitting, kicking, hyperactivity, attention seeking behaviours or repetitive behaviours.
School age children: express resistance to taking on new tasks, ask repetitive questions, have tantrums, aggressive behaviours, argue, withdrawal, rearranging schedule, freezing behaviour, physical symptoms, selective mutism, inhibition, hyperactivity, attention seeking behaviours.
Adolescents: can become easily overwhelmed by school demands, express resistance to school work, experience physical symptoms, school refusal, increase in social isolation, requiring more re-assurance, emergence or increase in mood dysregulation, aggressive behaviour, inhibition.
Parents play a pivotal role in managing anxiety by providing positive role models for how we manage our own anxiety and teaching positive coping strategies. Encourage brave behaviour with small rewards and acknowledge making mistakes as a normal part of learning.
Practical Strategies from Clark Goldstein, PhD at the Child Mind Institute (childmind.org) when children are anxious:
1 The goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety, but to help a child manage it.
2 Don’t avoid things just because they make a child anxious.
3 Express positive — but realistic — expectations.
4 Respect their feelings, but don’t empower them.
5 Don’t ask leading questions.
6 Don’t reinforce the child’s fears.
7 Encourage the child to tolerate their anxiety.
8 Try to keep the anticipatory period short.
9 Think things through with the child.
10 Try to model healthy ways of handling anxiety.
Be patient. Don’t struggle alone, rely on your treatment team of therapists, school and family support network.