Are we experiencing a childhood anxiety epidemic?
A 2015 Australian Government report on the mental health of children and adolescents found that almost seven per cent of 4 to 17-year-olds experienced an anxiety disorder. Since then, it’s been reported that the number of children who experience anxiety more intensely and more often than other children could be as high as 22%.
What is making our kids so anxious? Is there anything we can do to minimise the damage? How seriously should we, as parents, be taking this?
Alison Bocquée, clinical psychologist at Benchmark Psychology, says that while some fear is a good thing, the intensity and severity of your child’s fear can be a clear indicator that they are struggling with an anxiety disorder.
“Fear can be adaptive – it is an evolutionary process that has kept us safe and ensured survival of the human species for thousands of years,” says Alison. “Fear becomes more problematic when it is based on inaccurate appraisals of the threat, and/or the child engages in certain behaviours that impact on their ability to engage in developmentally appropriate and expected activities and tasks.”
Some fear is good – healthy, even. But when that fear is manifesting in symptoms like pervasive thoughts, body sensations and associated behaviours, like avoidance, an anxiety disorder could be at play.
Some of the most common types of anxiety include:
- Generalised: your child appears to worry about everything and interprets many aspects of their environment as potentially threatening
- Specific: your child’s fears relate to specific creatures/animals (e.g., dogs), events (e.g., injury), or situations (e.g., going to the doctor)
- Separation: their anxiety relates to difficulty separating from you or their other caregivers to attend school or childcare
- Selective mutism: inability to communicate when your child perceives threatening social situations
- Social: anxiety based around social concerns such as fitting in, being liked, etc
- Panic: your child perceives somatic or physical sensations of arousal as threatening, since they are expected to lead to a full-blown panic attack
- Post-traumatic stress: internal and external cues remind the child of the traumatic event and elicit anxiety
“The types of stimuli that trigger anxiety change as children age – whilst some fears in toddlerhood are common and maybe even developmentally appropriate, such as fear of strangers, the dark, and potential burglars, these fears are less common in childhood and adolescents,” says Alison. “During childhood, fears of natural disasters, injury, animals, poor academic or sporting performance tend to emerge, while socially based fears usually have onset in adolescence.”
The causes of anxiety can vary from change (actual or anticipatory) to external stressors (such as relocation), be media related (things seen or read in the news), triggered by sickness or death in the family, conflict or separation in the parenting unit, social difficulties – the list is endless. Alison explains that a shy temperament, low self-confidence, external locus of control and fixed mindset may all predispose a child to develop anxiety.
“At times anxious or avoidant coping has been modelled or demonstrated to the child by key caregivers, and there is some evidence of a genetic causative factor in childhood anxiety,” Alison adds.
So, what can we do to help our kids through their anxiety? And, what should we definitely not be doing?
The first step to addressing anxiety is to understand it – knowing how your kids think, their physical symptoms and how they cope with their difficulties and concerns is paramount to helping them.
“Oftentimes your child may initially verbalise physical complaints which have no medical cause, such as tummy pains or headaches – take a moment to consider what else may be troubling your child,” says Alison. “Another key factor that may alert you to their anxiety is a change in their functioning, particularly a reluctance to engage in previous activities.”
How can we help?
- Be their cheerleader: encourage them to see the situation differently, and help them develop an understanding around emotions, including anxiety, their body symptoms and signs and their thoughts. This will assist your child to link these external events or triggers, and they can then apply learned relaxation strategies or a mindful breathing technique to help them manage their physiological arousal level.
- Remain calm: model appropriate emotions to your child, whilst still validating their emotional experience, i.e. “You’re feeling anxious about saying goodbye to mummy once we get to school”. Keep a level head and be in the best position to help your child, which may mean learning your own relaxation or mindfulness strategies, too – this won’t just benefit you, but your child and potentially your whole family as well.
- Provide another way to think about the situation: reassure your child that they are safe and that adults (their parents or school teachers) are there to help. Solve problems together and work out a plan to address the concern. This may be looking under the bed together for monsters each evening, and leaving a torch with the child during the night. This finds a way for your child to approach rather than avoid the feared stimuli or situation, which is the key factor in reducing the impact of anxiety on your child.
What shouldn’t we do?
- Don’t over-compensate: a little reassurance can go a long way, a lot of reassurance can exacerbate their anxiety – “if mum has to keep telling me that it’s okay, may be there really is something for me to worry about!”
- Neglect your own self-care: ensure you don’t become overwhelmed and get caught up in your child’s anxiety, too. Educate yourself about anxiety, talking to a health professional if you are unsure of your child’s symptoms and the impact of their functioning. Also, ensure good sleep and have your own down/fun time, so that you’re in the best position to approach difficulties and express emotion with calmness and encouragement.
- Create stressors: this may sound unrelated, Alison says, but ensuring that your morning and evening routines are not rushed is so important – rushing can elicit feelings of anxiety for no other reason than feeling pressured or harried, making it hard to be responsive to your child in a proactive, preventive and supportive (rather than a reactive) manner.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your child’s anxiety, it may be time to take the courageous step to engage external support, like enlisting the help of the experts at Benchmark Psychology, for psychological treatment. A psychologist can help you develop an individualised plan to better manage anxiety and reduce its impact of your child and family functioning.