The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) states that anxiety is a normal part of childhood, and children can experience different degrees of worry as they learn and mature. A phase is temporary and usually harmless. Some children can suffer from anxiety disorders, avoiding places and activities due to their fear, nervousness, and shyness. Essentially, this degree of fearfulness consumes their thoughts on a day-to-day basis.
Most anxieties are a normal reaction to stress and can actually be beneficial. For some children, however, anxiety can become excessive, and while the child suffering may realize it is excessive they may also have difficulty controlling it. There are a wide variety of anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and specific phobias to name a few. Collectively they are among the most common mental disorders experienced by Americans. Surprisingly, anxiety disorders affect one in eight children.
At www.childparenting.about.com there are some tips and guidelines for helping your child when anxiety becomes overwhelming.
Don’t dismiss the feelings. Telling your child not to worry about her fears may only make her feel like she’s doing something wrong by feeling anxious. Let her know it’s okay to feel bad about something, and encourage her to share her feelings.
Listen. You know how enormously comforting it can be just to have someone listen when something’s bothering you. Do the same thing for your child. If he doesn’t feel like talking, let him know you are there for him.
Offer comfort and distraction. Try to do something she enjoys, like playing a favorite game or cuddling in your lap and having you read to her. Any child of any age will appreciate a good dose of parent “TLC”.
Get outside. Exercise can boost moods, so get moving! Even if it’s just for a walk around the block, fresh air and physical activity may be just what he needs to lift his spirits and give him a new perspective on things.
Stick to routines. Children like routines because it gives them a sense of security. Try sticking to regular bedtime and mealtimes.
Keep your child healthy. Is your child eating right and getting enough sleep? Not getting enough rest or eating nutritious meals at regular intervals can contribute to your child’s stress. If he feels good, he’ll be better equipped to work through whatever is bothering him.
Avoid overscheduling. Soccer, karate, baseball, music lessons, play dates – the list of extracurricular activities can be endless! Too many activities can easily lead to stress and anxiety in children. Just as we need some downtime after work and on weekends, children also need some quiet time alone to decompress.
Limit your child’s exposure to upsetting news/stories. If your child sees or hears upsetting images or accounts of natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis or sees disturbing accounts of violence or terrorism on the news, talk to your child about what’s going on. Talk about the aide that people who are victims of disasters or violence receive from humanitarian groups, and discuss ways that she may help, such as working with her school to raise money for the victims.
Set a calm example. You can set the tone for how stress and anxiety is handled in your house. It’s virtually impossible to block out stress from our lives in today’s high-tech, 24-hour-news-cycle world, but you can do something about how you handle your own stress. By keeping things calm and peaceful at home, the less likely it is that anxiety in children will be a problem in your household.
If you believe your child’s anxiety is not just a phase and is not improving, please seek advice from your pediatrician or help from a counselor that specializes in childhood anxiety. The ADAA’s findings show 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. However, managing negative emotions is a part of life and a learning process. The ADAA offers encouraging words for those families with an anxiety-ridden child. “Children need to learn to manage negative emotions, and to do that, they need to experience them from time-to-time at manageable levels. The anxiety-free child is a fantasy. Anxiety is an important warning signal for potential danger, and mastering both the anxiety and the thing or event that provoked it is a powerful learning experience.”
Barbara A. Burrows is owner of The Goddard School in Edwardsville, located at 801 South Arbor Vitae, an Edwardsville Rotarian and a wish granter/ambassador for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Burrows and her staff provide The Goddard School experience to more than 250 area families with children ages 6 weeks to 12 years old enrolled in childcare, preschool and before- and after-school programs. Burrows’ writes this column exclusively for the Edwardsville Intelligencer offering advice on parenting, child development and family enrichment.