Between 8% and 22% of children will suffer from childhood anxiety at levels that interrupt their quality of life. This significant number indicates just how common and widespread childhood anxiety really is. Not just nervous or shy, the anxious child experiences anxiety that is more intense and occurs more often than in other children.
There are different types and levels of anxiety in children, so it’s important to gain an understanding of the causes and symptoms.
Babies and small children are too young to be concerned about anything outside of themselves. For children to become worried, they need to imagine events ahead of time and bad things that may happen to them. This is why the more severe anxiety disorders in children occur over the age of eight.
Younger children may experience childhood anxiety symptoms over matters such as getting sick or hurt, while older children and young teens can suffer anxiety derived from any number of things, such as family issues and relationships, distressing world events, or even economic and political fears.
Anxiety in children can be physiologically based. For example, it can be inherited, just as eye colour can be. Anxiety can also be learned behaviour from parents. A young child may model the way her parents cope with stressors and situations, taking the same patterns on board unconsciously. The way a parent interacts with a child can also sometimes exacerbate a child’s anxiety. For example, if a mother is overprotective of a child, this may make the child fearful about venturing outside, thus increasing her levels of anxiety.
Understanding social anxiety
Social anxiety in children involves worry and fear about social situations with other children or fear of being the focus of attention. Typically when this manifests, the child:
- is withdrawn or shy;
- has few friends;
- finds it difficult to meet other children or join in play groups;
- avoids a situation where they may be in the limelight, such as going to the front of the class or answering a question in a group situation.
Understanding generalised childhood anxiety
When a child is suffering generalised childhood anxiety, nothing is off-limits when it comes to the cause. It can be concerns about health, friendships, world events or family dynamics.
Typically, when a child is suffering generalised childhood anxiety they:
- have a strong desire to seek perfection;
- find performing in tests confronting;
- seek constant reassurance;
- complain about feeling sick or have physical illnesses as a result of being anxious;
- are frightened of asking questions or seeking help in a classroom;
- worry about many different things.
Supporting children with anxiety
Support can be shown to a child who is suffering child anxiety symptoms in several ways:
- Listen to the child and acknowledge her concerns;
- Don’t pre-empt anxiety – wait until the child is showing signs of distress before you try to help;
- Gently encourage the child to do things that cause anxiety, but don’t push too hard;
- Praise the child when she had done something that makes her anxious;
- Avoid labelling the child as ‘anxious’, ‘shy’ or ‘different’.
When do children with anxiety need additional help?
If a child is simply sensitive from time to time, that may not be of great concern. So, when do you know when a children with anxiety need additional help? Here are some questions to answer that may help to put things in perspective for you:
- Is the child’s anxiety inhibiting his lifestyle or happiness? (Does it hinder his friendships, sleep patterns, schoolwork or playtime?);
- How severely does your child react when anxious? (When you separate from her, is she exceedingly anxious and cannot settle? When feeling anxious, can she eat? Can she still talk with others?);
- Is the child reacting much more severely to similar issues than others, or behaving very differently to his peers?
Answering ‘yes’ to any of the above may warrant the need for professional help.
Finding a solution to childhood anxiety issues
Anxiety is painful for any sufferer. It is limiting, stressful, and can be physically painful and disabling. Moderate to severe anxiety in children can’t be swept under the carpet and needs to be addressed.
Fortunately, more light has been shone on this subject in recent years, and there are good options available. Talking to your local GP is a great starting point. Your GP may refer you to a specialist paediatrician, or perhaps a child psychologist. There are also specialist childhood anxiety clinics available in every state with professionals who specialise purely on this disorder.
Childhood anxiety should be addressed so that the child can learn how to modify their behaviour, cope with stressful situations and find ways of eliminating recurrences. Cognitive behavioural treatment is commonly used to treat anxiety in children, helping them to think through anxious situations and learn how to rethink their perceptions about activities and triggers. Currently, cognitive behavioural treatment is considered one of the best treatments for anxiety disorders in children.
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