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February 08th, 2016

Childhood Anxiety

Anxieties are very much on the rise in children and young people. 2.2% or about 96,000 children in the UK have an anxiety disorder.[ref:http://www.youngminds.org.uk/training_services/policy/mental_health_statistics]

Normal worries

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, a worry or fear. Children can be fearful of many things, some of them imaginary and many of them irrational. It can be hard for an adult to understand their fears.Many worries are a normal part of growing up.

0-2 years – infants and toddlers are often afraid of loud noises, strangers, separation and large objects

It’s very common for young children to experience separation anxiety from about 8 months. They may become clingy and cry when separated from their parents or carers. This normal stage of development tends to ease off at around age two to three.  

3-6 years – young children are frequently afraid of imaginary things such as monsters, the dark, sleeping alone and strange noises

It’s also common for pre-school children to develop specific fears or phobias of certain animals, insects, storms, heights, water, and blood. These fears usually go away gradually on their own. Gentle gradual exposure to the feared object can help.

7-16 years – older children have more realistic fears such as injury or illness, death and natural disasters, school performance and their future, social anxiety, identity and belonging.

Throughout a child’s life there will be times when they feel anxiety. 

What makes a child anxious?

  • Some children are more prone to worries and anxiety than others.
  • Playing certain computer games can trigger adrenaline rushes which may not get burned off if the child doesn’t get out and move around.
  • Children often find change difficult and may become anxious following a house move or when starting a new school or even if parents are using very inconsistent parenting approaches.
  • Children who have had a traumatic experience, such as a car accident or house fire, may suffer with anxiety afterwards. Some children who experience stress at an early age remain with elevated stress levels.
  • Family arguments and conflict can also leave children feeling insecure and anxious.
  • School can be a very anxious place for some, especially those who find school work difficult or social life tricky.
  • Sleep deprivation is a cause as well as a symptom of anxiety.
  • Parental anxiety plays a big role in a child’s worries.

When is anxiety a problem for children?

Sometimes anxieties are very big, very frequent and very consuming.

Anxiety becomes a problem for children when it starts to get in the way of their day-to-day life. Example: a 10 year old girl who is so afraid of being on her own that she won’t sleep in her own room but sleeps in her parents’ room. This is obviously disruptive to both her parents and her.

Paul Stallard, Professor of Child and Family Mental Health at the University of Bath says “If you go into any school at exam time all the kids will be anxious but some may be so anxious that they don’t get into school that morning…. Some will sit in an exam and their mind freezes and they can’t get anything down on paper. This is when anxiety starts to interfere with what children need to do or would like to do in everyday life.”

Severe anxiety can affect children’s self-esteem. They may become withdrawn and go to great lengths to avoid things or situations that make them feel anxious. Anxiety disorders that start in childhood often persist into the teenage years and early adulthood. Teenagers with an anxiety disorder are more likely to develop clinical depression, misuse drugs and feel suicidal.

This is why you should get help as soon as you realise it's a problem.

What are the signs of anxiety in children?

When young children feel anxious, they cannot usually understand or express what they are feeling. They may become irritable, angry, tearful, clingy, withdrawn or have difficulty sleeping, waking in the night, wetting the bed or having bad dreams. They may start or revert to thumb-sucking, tics or stammers, hair pulling or nail biting. They may experience eczema or headaches or stomach aches. They may engage in ritualistic, repetitive or obsessive behaviours. They may ask many, many questions, not because they really want the answers but because they’re seeking connection.

Older children may:

  • lack the confidence to try new things or seem unable to face simple, everyday challenges and may avoid everyday activities, such as seeing friends, going out in public or attending school
  • find it hard to concentrate
  • have problems with sleeping or eating
  • be prone to angry outbursts
  • talk about their negative thoughts or the bad things that are going to happen
  • engage in comfort eating

What can parents do?

It doesn’t work to tell them there’s nothing to be afraid of, not to be worried or to pull themselves together.

Emotion Coaching

This helps children cope with their uncomfortable feelings, to understand them, be able to verbalise them and to find ways to manage them or alleviate them. Emotion coaches recognise and respect children’s feelings and reflect back to the child what they are experiencing. Giving the emotion a label helps the child to manage it. Name it to tame it.

When your 3 year old won’t go to bed because she’s afraid of monsters don’t say “don’t worry about it” or “don’t be silly-monsters aren’t real.” This will not work. You could say something like “even though monsters aren’t real they can feel very real in the middle of the night. I can see how frightened it has made you feel because you’re crying.  This won’t dismiss her feelings but nor does it suggest that there is actually something for her to be afraid of. Sometimes it can work to get her to shrink the monster or give him a funny face. Some families will work with magic ‘talismans’ that can ‘magic’ away monsters –these can be any object that can be invested with magic properties. 

Alicia Eaton (Words That Work: How to Get Kids to Do Almost Anything by Alicia Eaton) suggests using a worry box. She describes worries as emotional messages that our minds send us to take care of us. This is ok where you can take action about the worry such as revising more for an exam. But it’s a problem if there’s nothing you can do. To make the message go away we need to acknowledge receipt –trick the mind into believing action has been taken. Get your child to write down or draw their worry, fold up the paper and put it in a box. Keep the box out of sight, not under their bed. At the end of the week review the worries-most will have taken care of themselves or won’t have materialised. Acknowledge that they didn’t occur without saying “see I told you there was no need to worry.” The child can then decide if they want to put the worry back into the box or throw it away.

Prepare
You can help by preparing children in advance for new situations; talk through what’s going to happen and maybe practice in role play.

Build confidence
Encourage children to feel capable by giving credible descriptive praise for the strategies they use to cope with life. “I like the way you tried again when your first attempt didn’t work. Looks like you’ve found a solution.” Do this all the time. Give them lots of opportunities to be independent and support them by training in small steps. Make your focus be less on results and more on effort and tactics used. Don’t ask ‘did you win?’ when they’ve played a match. When kids think all their parents care about is results they get very anxious.

Failure
When kids make mistakes or fail let them know that mistakes and struggles are a normal part of learning and an indication that their brains are growing. Model an attitude of ‘what can I learn from this?’

Consider environmental factors
Food –can affect stress levels and create mood swings, especially toxins like caffeine and sugar

  1. Exercise –regular exercise soaks up excess adrenaline and releases endorphins
  2. Laughter –do a lot of it
  3. Relaxation –teach your child relaxation and breathing techniques

If you think your child is suffering from greater than normal levels of anxiety consult your GP.

 

 

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