As parents, we’re often concerned when our children express anxiety. While it is normal for kids of all ages to fear things like monsters, the dark, bugs, and getting lost or kidnapped, we need to take note when these fears impact their day-to-day lives. If a child is too afraid to go to school, get a haircut, or spend time with friends, their fear may be causing more harm than good. The first step in identifying anxiety is talking with your doctor or mental health specialist, who will look at the symptoms and how they affect a child’s life.
Many children are able to talk about their feelings, but others can’t express what they’re feeling. For this reason, it’s sometimes hard to know when a child is anxious. Kids of all ages can exhibit symptoms, such as irritability, difficulty focusing (often mistaken for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD), and physical complaints such as “butterflies” in the stomach or clammy hands. Some kids with anxiety have trouble falling asleep or have nightmares.
When a child is struggling, they may also be more withdrawn, acting out of character, or avoiding social situations and tasks. Those with anxiety disorders might have somatic or physical symptoms, such as having a stomachache, clammy hands, difficulty breathing, or “butterflies” in the stomach, before or during a feared event and not experience them at other times.
In addition to taking a survey about the symptoms, a professional will interview both you and your child and review any other factors that could be causing their anxiety. A child will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder if their symptoms cause distress and interfere with their daily functioning for at least six months.
While there’s no cure for an anxiety disorder, the right treatment can help manage it. A therapist can teach kids and teens tools to calm their mind and body. For example, children with social anxiety disorder might learn to practice saying hello and goodbye, or a child with a travel or separation anxiety disorder might be taught to meet camp counselors or tour new schools ahead of time.
Some kids with anxiety disorders benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps them change how they think and behave, or from medications to reduce their symptoms. However, only doctors who specialise in children and young people’s mental health should prescribe medication. Parents can play a key role in helping their children cope with anxiety. They can cheer them on for their math test or acknowledge that getting a shot isn’t fun, but will keep them healthy in the long run. They can also help their children set aside regular, supportive, nonjudgmental time for each other, especially tweens and teens, who tend to be emotional Geiger counters that register the anxieties of those around them. And finally, they can model confidence to their kids by being mindful of their own reactions to stressors and learning to temper their own overanxious responses.