21 August 2013

When does anxiety become problematic in a child’s life?

Anxiety has been the number one issue for clients I have been seeing. What has been interesting, however, is that the anxiety being reported, which they are truly experiencing, is normal experiences by the body and not abnormal or clinical.
Anxiety is the body’s natural way of preparing itself to respond to a perceived, or actual, threat or fear.  When this threat has been identified, the body is then able and ready to react in the flight, fight or freeze responses.
Children experience anxiety in many different ways. Some of the physical symptoms are: increased heart rate, nausea, shortness of breath, stomach aches, sweating, headaches, dizziness, muscle tension, insomnia, diarrhoea and restlessness to name a few. In the brain, anxiety may provide less access to memory, a decrease in verbal comprehension, and lead to poor planning abilities.
Anxiety becomes problematic in a child when the response to the stressor is not proportional to the stressor. For example is the fear realistic? How intense is the anxiety experience? How long is the anxiety being experienced? And is the anxiety interfering and impairing areas of daily functioning?
Problematic anxiety could look like this: avoiding school, overly clingy, depression, sleep issues, aggressiveness, avoidance, rigidity, and obsessions and compulsions.
As such, it is important to note that some anxiety experiences are normal developmentally. Such as a four-year-old who is scared of strangers or loud noises; a five-year-old afraid of being away from parents; an eight-year-old who is scared of being alone because of ghosts, or a 14-year-old who is afraid of peer and parent rejection because of school marks.
So what can you do as a parent? The primary goal should be to create and maintain safety for your child. You can do this by:
  • Having fluid and age appropriate routines and structure.
  • Making sure basic needs are being cared for: sleep, eating, physical health.
  • Setting attainable and reasonable expectations.
  • Being attuned to your child’s needs.
  • Being playful and curious with your child.
  • Showing them acceptance and empathy.
  • Giving them opportunities to explore and experience.

Do not avoid anxious moments. Avoiding anxiety is not a way to fix anxiety. As such, if there is a certain stressor that is causing disproportionate anxiety in your child, you should:
  • Try to teach them distress tolerance skills so that they can tolerate the stress without becoming overwhelmed.
  • Break the stressor or fear down into smaller steps.
  • Talk to your child (if age appropriate) about the stressor.

If the conversation and skills don’t work, and you have tried multiple other techniques and the anxiety is still causing interference with daily routines, consider then to seek help with anxiety from a professional.
It is important to note that about 10% of children are actually diagnosed with anxiety disorders. So the anxiety that your child is experiencing is real, and it may just be a normal part of their development.