Anxiety is a nervous disorder that affects both, children, and adults, but the major difference between the two is that children cannot express their feelings well. Namely, even though children can complain of some of the symptoms they experience, anxiety is the last thing that comes to their parents’ mind.
Anxiety is inevitable in growing up, and its symptoms are a result of the “fight or flight” response of the body. New experiences in the life of children, especially in school lead to fear, shyness, behavior changes, changes eating or sleeping habits, etc.
According to PSYCOM:
“Specific fears, worries, and anxious thoughts are common among children and adolescents. As kids grow and learn about the world around them, they begin to form their own thoughts and feelings about potential dangers and sources of stress. While many young children grapple with fears about the dark, dogs, and monsters (to name a few), older children can become anxious about death, loss, and personal safety.
Some anxiety among children and adolescents is a perfectly normal part of development. Some children, however, experience an overwhelming sense of anxiety and dread. Some experience symptoms of panic attacks. Some become so preoccupied with their triggers and symptoms that they struggle to attend to normal daily activities. Childhood anxiety can negatively impact life in school, family relationships, peer relationships, and even the physical health of the child.”
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reported that the rate of childhood anxiety is on the rise, and it is currently affecting 25.1% of children between the ages of 13 and 18.
“Research shows that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.”
Most often, the signs of anxiety are subtle, so parents should be very careful.
The psychiatrist Veena Ahuja, MD, says:
“Many times, pain syndromes come along with depressive and anxiety symptoms. And if you first resolve any underlying medical issues, it helps with the depression and anxiety.”
Experts from the UCLA Child Anxiety Resilience Education and Supports (CARES) Center, John Piacentini, Ph.D., and Lindsey Bergman, Ph.D. specify the three most important areas parents should know about:
1. Emotional Signs of Anxiety in Children
- Cries often
- Gets grouchy or angry without any clear reason
- Anxiety before or during tests
- Panic attacks
- Fears that distract them from playing
- Obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors
- Frequent nightmares about losing a parent
- Phobia and exaggerated fears
- Tantrums and meltdowns
- Fear and worries during drop-offs
- Fear of making mistakes
- Worries about the distant future
2. Behavioral Signs of Anxiety in Children
As children might have troubles expressing physical pain, these signs are very important:
- Remains silent or preoccupied during group work
- Makes excuses not to go to school
- Stays inside or alone during lunch or recess
- Constantly asks “What if?”
- Avoids participating during class activities
- Constantly seeks approval from parents, friends, teachers
- Gives up before trying
- Avoids social situations with peers
- Becomes emotional or angry when separating from parents or loved ones
3. Physical Signs of Anxiety in Children
- Headaches or stomach aches
- Inability to fall or stay asleep
- Restlessness, hyperactivity, distraction
- Tense muscles
- Sweating or shaking in new, uncontrolled situations
- Won’t eat lunch at daycare or school
- Refuses to use restrooms except at home
According to Dr. John V. Campo from the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, stomach pain in children can be linked to anxiety and depression.
Namely, he conducted a study which analyzed medical records of 80 children and adolescents. More than a half, 43 of them reported chronic stomach aches, and the team discovered eye-opening findings:
- Anxiety disorders usually developed at age 9
- Those participants who experienced stomach aches had a significantly higher risk of behavioral problems
- 81% of the participants who reported stomach ache group suffered from either anxiety disorders or depression
- 79% of those with chronic stomach aches suffered from an anxiety disorder – usually social phobia, separation anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder.
- 43% of the participants with chronic stomach aches were diagnosed with some form of depression
Another 2015 study published in the Korean Journal of Pediatrics, that analyzed 720 children, found a link between headaches and depression and anxiety disorder.
“Nineteen patients had headaches and clinically significant total scores for psychiatric symptoms. The mean age at headache diagnosis was 11.7 years, and 57% were male. Mean duration of headache was 11.5 months. Two point eight percent of the patients were diagnosed with psychiatric disorders including major depression (1.7%) [and] generalized anxiety disorder (1.1%).”
Kathleen Smith, Ph.D., advises parents:
“Never hesitate to consult with professionals about your child’s anxiety, as they can guide you towards the right resources and conduct a proper assessment. Children with anxiety disorders are typically treated with talk therapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help a child test out what thoughts they have are realistic or unrealistic.
Play therapy may work best for young children to work through anxieties. For some kids, medication may be prescribed in the short-term or the long-term, depending on the nature and severity of symptoms. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed medication to treat anxiety disorders among children.”
“Parents can validate the child’s feelings but also model calmness and confidence that their child is going to be okay and can master scary situations like school or meeting new people. Also, because children are most anxious leading up to a challenging situation, it’s important for parents not to ask too many questions about the anxiety. “
If your child is struggling with anxiety, you will also try to help by:
— Paying attention to the feelings and words of your child
— Remaining calm when your child becomes anxious
— Making the necessary changes in your routines and plan for transitions
— Recognizing, bringing positivity, and praising small accomplishments
— Avoiding punishing the child for the mistakes
— Being adaptable and lower your expectations during stressful periods
— Removing stressors that trigger it
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