It is now widely accepted that young children suffer from anxiety, just like adults.
While current statistics tell us 1 in 10 children and adolescents struggle with an anxiety disorder, which impacts their ability to cope with life, I believe it is closer to 100% of children who experienced some form of anxiety before they start school.
"My tummy hurts."
"My tummy hurts" is one of the most common things we hear when a child is anxious. Most young children are already able to tell us when something feels physically wrong, or if they are in pain, however they don't necessarily understand what they're dealing with, or have the vocabulary and experience to express it. Most young children are not able to tell us exactly how they feel, as they tend to see things differently and can't distinguish if the pain in their tummy is caused by something they have eaten, or something they are thinking or worrying about.
"We need to pay closer attention to our children's cry for help."
Children can be sensitive to everything going on around them, and it is not unusual for children to blame themselves for something happening in their environment, such as challenges at home or school, or with their friendship group. We can help our children by offering reassurance, and explaining they are not to blame.
Raising children can be tough under normal circumstances and we often find ourselves worrying about them, but children pick up on our own anxieties and can become anxious themselves. We refer to this as a learnt behaviour. Some children feel more anxious than others, so here are some other signs that may indicate your child is struggling:-
- Tummy aches or headaches during stressful situations
- Often upset or tearful for no apparent reason
- Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or repeated nightmares
- Always worrying, or afraid of something happening in the future
- Avoiding eating or comfort eating
- Trouble staying focused or concentrating, and maybe extra fidgety
- Having a hard time coping or opening-up
- Needing the toilet more frequently than normal
- Frequent meltdowns or tantrums, or other behavioural challenges
- Difficulty in breathing, or a lot of sweating
- Avoids meeting new people, or people who cause them stress
- Avoids crowded places such as supermarkets or school
- Strange behaviours that can cause self-harm (pinching, biting, scratching or pulling their hair out)
- Panic attacks
"Negative behaviour is frequently the response to negative feelings."
I firmly believe that negative behaviour is frequently the response to negative feelings, and therefore we need to pay closer attention to our child's cry for help. Talk to your child and ask them questions about how they feel. Try and listen without interruption, so your child feels heard. You may need to help them with words if they are struggling to express themselves, or ask them to draw what they are feeling.
Anxious children can be very demanding and require a lot of reassurance and patience. It can be very frustrating for parents but what children need most are patience and calm. I appreciate this can be easier said than done when parents may also feel anxious, and we can only do our best with the resources we have at that time. Try and find a calm time to talk to your child about anything that is worrying them. Reassure your child that you love them and they are safe.
When anxiety is impacting your child's wellbeing for a prolonged period, it becomes a disorder. The most common types of anxiety disorders in children are:-
- Separation anxiety - This happens when a younger child is separated from his/her parent or guardian. Some children fear separation more than others, but if your child clings so much they are unable to play with others, sleep alone or be in a different room, then they may have separation anxiety. Try to ensure children get a wide range of experiences when they are young, especially opportunities to play with other children without the intervention of an adult, and encourage them to spend time away from their parents before they start school
- Social anxiety – Some children become very anxious around people and busy places, and refuse to meet a new crowd of people and to make new friends. An anxious child becomes self-conscious and worries that he/she will be humiliated and judged by others. Try and encourage your child to interact with other children, taking small steps as their confidence in themselves increases. This is known as exposure therapy and can be done with a trained professional.
- Phobia - Children experience panic or severe fear of a specific thing or situation such as spiders, storms, or people fighting. You might notice unreasonable fear or trauma. Severe trauma or phobia requires professional help.
- Panic attacks – Children may feel that it is difficult to breathe and even think that they are going to die. Panic attacks are very frightening, both for the child having them and a parent/guardian witnessing them. Remind your child that it will soon pass and practice breathing techniques to regain control. Please refer to my website for a demonstration of a calming breathing technique that you may find helpful. Alternatively, you might ask a younger child to breathe as if they are blowing up a balloon, so a long slow breath in, and a long slow breath out. Repeat as many times as needed.
I imagine we can all remember times in our own childhoods where we felt worried or anxious about something like monsters under the bed* These worries, no matter how irrational they seem to parents, can feel very real to a child. Listen to their concerns, reassure them and try not to dismiss their fear as no big deal.
It's totally normal for everyone, including children, to feel anxious sometimes. However, if anxiety persists or gets worse, and impacts on home life or school, you may wish to seek the help of a trusted coach or therapist, or talk to your GP.
We may need help to overcome our anxieties, but it is possible, and I believe no one should feel that their anxiety defines them of their behaviour.
I have repeatedly found that by addressing the worry and anxious thoughts at a young age, children's behaviour and self-esteem naturally improves.