Kids and Anxiety
We all have times when we feel anxious, adults and kids included. Anxiety is a normal part of life, a helpful way that our body responds to danger. However, for some children, anxiety starts to dominate their lives, interfering in many of the important tasks of childhood – making friends, attending school, learning to be independent. Anxiety can affect children in a range of different ways – here are some examples:
‘What if something bad happens to you? What if you don’t’ come back to pick me up? What if I have a problem and you’re not there to help me? ‘
Some children are scared and worried about being away from Mum or Dad (or primary caregiver). These kinds of fears are pretty common when you are a preschooler, but they really start to interfere in your life if you still feel that way when you’re older. If your child has separation fears, they may find it difficult to say goodbye at the school gate in the morning, they may follow you around the house when you are at home and need to know where you are at all times. They may feel scared and worried about going to the school camp or have trouble getting to sleep if you aren’t beside them.
‘What if they don’t like me? What if they laugh at me? What if I get in trouble?’
When a child has social fears, this can have a negative impact on so many areas of life. These are the painfully shy kids, the children who fear asking the teacher a question, who cry every time they have to make a presentation in front of the class, who have trouble making new friends and find it difficult to be assertive when a bossy friend is pushing them around.
For some kids, specific situations can be extremely scary. Here are some examples of things children can fear: heights, lifts, the dark, spiders, bees and insects, dogs, thunderstorms…..
If this is true for your child, you may find that they have begun to avoid situations or places in which they fear encountering the feared object – For example, refusing to go into the back yard because of fear of spiders, or being unwilling to go outside on days when the weather forecast predicts rain. This avoidance can start to interfere in your child’s life (and perhaps your life too).
‘What if I fail my test? What if I have cancer? What if there’s an earthquake? What if I said something which upset my friend? What if? What if?’
Some children seem to worry all the time, about all kinds of things. Perhaps you find that your child is frequently asking you for reassurance, only to ask you all the same questions an hour later. Often kids who worry a lot also experience physical symptoms such as tummy aches and headaches, and can find it difficult to get to sleep at night.
Obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviours
‘I can’t get that scary thought out of my head. ‘ ‘What if I made a mistake? I had better check it again.’
There are two parts to OCD – thoughts and behaviours. Look here for more information about OCD and how it works. Here are just some examples of how OCD can affect children:
- Scary thoughts about germs and illness leading to excessive handwashing/cleaning
- Worries about mistakes and getting in trouble leading to excessive checking of schoolwork or a need to ‘confess’ things that are very minor.
- Fears about harm coming to self or others, leading to rituals such as tapping or counting.
- A need for order and symmetry, leading to rigid rules about ordering and arranging things.
Although we’ve described some of the common ways that anxiety can become a problem for kids, each child’s experience is very individual. You may find that your child doesn’t really fall into any of these categories, despite experiencing a level of anxiety that interferes in their life. Here’s what all kids who experience anxiety have in common:
- Fears and worries about things that objectively are unlikely to happen, or are unlikely to be as bad as they think.
- Avoidance of situations that they find scary.
And the good news is that there are really effective strategies that help kids to overcome their fears, so that anxiety no longer gets in the way of the important things in life.
Things you can do as a parent
- Encourage kids to persist with things, even if they feel a bit anxious. The best way to overcome fear and anxiety is to do the thing you are afraid of. This gives you the opportunity to find out that the things you are afraid of usually don’t happen. And even if things don’t go perfectly, you get to see that you can cope and adapt. It often leaves you with a new found sense of confidence and pride in yourself.
- Reward and praise your child for all their brave behaviours. Rewards are a great motivator, and increase your child’s sense of achievement.
How we can help
As psychologists, we have nifty strategies that help kids better understand their anxiety and overcome their fears. We also work closely with parents so that you can continue to help your child use the strategies once therapy is finished.
More information about anxiety
Here’s some more information about anxiety – what it is, how it can affect people and what we can do to treat it.