Managing Anxiety in Children and Adolescents
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety commonly refers to a vague, unpleasant emotional experience with qualities of discomfort, uneasiness, fear, distress and dread. Even in the best of situations, children and adolescents experience fear and anxiety as they grow and develop. Typically these fears and anxieties resolve as the child/adolescent learn skills to cope with and master the unfamiliar, stressful object or situation.
What are some of the symptoms and signs of anxiety?
The symptoms of anxiety are similar for children, adolescents and adults, and they can be broadly categorised into physical, cognitive (thought), and behavioural symptoms. Physical symptoms occur as a result of the brain sending neural messages to various parts of the body to prepare for the “fight, flight or freeze” response. Some of the physical symptoms related to anxiety include butterflies in the stomach, diarrhoea, dry mouth, rapid heart rates, shortness of breath, chest tightness or pain, sweating, dizziness, chills or hot flushes. Cognitive symptoms of anxiety can be unrealistic and catastrophic and include thoughts such as “I can’t cope”, “I am losing control of my body”, and “I am going to fall over, and people will laugh at me”. Child/adolescent who experiences anxiety may also display behavioural symptoms such as avoidance of objects or situations that provoke anxiety, procrastination, refusing to go to school, clinging to familiar people, excessively seeking reassurance, difficulty sleeping/insomnia, temper tantrums/irritability/anger and inability to concentrate.
Tips to Manage Anxiety in Children and Adolescents
1. Provide a safe, secure, warm and familiar home environment and have a consistent and stable routine to provide structure in daily life. Keep your child/adolescent informed of anticipated changes with a calendar or a visual schedule of the activities coming up each day.
2. Spend quality, calm and relaxed time with your child/adolescent (e.g., playing with a favourite toy, reading a book, or listening to calming music). Your child/adolescent may also benefit from learning new relaxation strategies such deep breathing, or progressive muscle relaxation.
3. Encourage your child/adolescent to express his or her concerns, worries and fears. If your child struggles with talking, he or she may be able to communicate their concerns through drawing, role play or use of technology. When he or she does share, listen, acknowledge and validate their emotional experience (e.g., “So you are feeling scared/anxious because…”, “I can see why you are scared of…”, “It makes sense to me that you are anxious about…”). Avoid being critical (e.g., “You are such a baby”, “Big boy/girl doesn’t get scared”) or dismissive (e.g., “Don’t be silly. There is nothing to be scared of/get anxious about…”).
4. Build your child/adolescent’s sense of self-efficacy. Prevent avoidance by involving your child/adolescent in situations where he or she can succeed, and providing opportunities for your child/adolescent to face fears in manageable, progressively more difficult steps. Use positive encouragement and rewards, instead of punishment, for brave, non-anxious behaviour, so your child/adolescent may enjoy the process more as he or she achieve each step.
5. Recognise the “signature” signs of anxiety in your child/adolescent, and when appropriate, point these signs out so he or she can start to become more aware of and recognise the emotional state. If possible, help your child/adolescent to see the links between thought, physical sensation, emotion and behaviour.
6. Encourage healthy eating (reduce caffeinated, high sugar drinks and food), regular exercise, hobbies, sufficient sleep and connection with families and friends. When your child/adolescent is well-rested and relaxed, he or she will be in a better mental state to handle fears and/or anxieties.
7. Learn to manage your own stress and anxiety. By modelling calm acceptance of anxiety, you will be helping your child/adolescent to learn that anxiety can be managed effectively, which in turn helps to reduce his or her anxiety.
8. Around 8-25% of children experience anxiety more intensely and more frequently than other children. If you think that your child/adolescent is experiencing excessive anxiety that significantly disrupts his or her daily functioning and overall development despite your best efforts, consult your GP to determine whether a referral to a mental health professional (e.g., psychologist or counsellor) is warranted.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. We hope you have gained some insight into helping your child manage their anxious feelings. As a gesture of our gratitude, we would like to offer you a complimentary chat with our Principal Psychologist, to assist you in exploring some more options in helping your child.