Anxiety is an emotion characterised by feelings of tension or fear, worried thoughts and physical sensations. Most children experience some form of anxiety at some point, and this is a normal part of growing up. Mild anxiety is usually not a major cause for concern, especially if feelings of tension are only temporary.
However, anxiety becomes a problem when a child is unable to manage stress or worry. This can lead to severe long-term complications in the future if not dealt with promptly and appropriately.
As such, it is important to understand what anxiety is about, how to spot one, and how to manage it.
What Makes Children Anxious?
A child can feel anxious due to different reasons, depending on the individual.
Here are some common causes of anxiety and stress with examples:
- Separation. A child may feel upset and worried if they are away from their parents for a period of time as they fear that unpleasant events may occur.
- New environment. A sudden and drastic change in environment may evoke uncertainty and worry, such as when moving house or changing to a new school.
- Struggling at school. Examinations and homework can lead to overwhelming stress and anxiety, especially if they are unable to cope.
- Phobia. Anxiety can also be triggered by specific fear of a situation or things such as darkness, thunderstorms or insects. Phobia may also develop due to traumatic experiences faced in the past, such as being bullied or abused.
- Social and environmental factors. A child may feel distressed if the people around them, such as parents or friends, are also anxious.
- Low self-esteem. Fear of social situations and worry of being judged by others due to self-consciousness are also common causes of anxiety.
- High expectations of themselves. This is especially common in parenting methods focused on wanting a child to do well, and placing a lot of stress on them. As such, they may have a constant desire to perform well and meet the expectations set by their parents or themselves, leading to severe worry of failure.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety can affect a child in many ways. In many cases, they tend to behave differently when feeling distressed, often turning to certain coping mechanisms and behaviours to try to avoid their anxiety.
Here are some of the common signs of anxiety and what you should look out for:
- Panic attacks, including sweating or shaking profusely, accelerated heartbeat or rapid shallow breathing.
- Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
- False sense of stomachache or having to pee more than usual
- Hyperactive or restlessness
- Constant crying
- Frequently distracted or preoccupied with negative thoughts.
- Difficulty concentrating
- Frequent nightmares
- Sudden angry outbursts
- Constantly asking “what if” questions (such as “what if I fail?”)
- Isolating or withdrawing themselves by shunning crowds or avoiding activities
- Unusually quiet
- Eating more or less than usual
- Repeating certain actions
When Should You Seek Medical Help?
Some degree of anxiety in children is normal, even for adults. Anxiety can help to prevent and navigate dangerous situations, and even serve as a form of motivation.
However, anxiety becomes a problem when it leads to extreme distress that disrupts everyday life. This refers to your child intentionally avoiding situations, people or things that make them anxious. In short, avoidance is one of the most significant tell-tale indicators of anxiety.
When you suspect or notice that your child is often displaying this behaviour, you should consult a paediatrician as soon as possible to address your child’s anxiety. This is because anxiety may spiral into more detrimental long-term consequences and, in the most extreme case, can even lead to depression.
How Can You Help a Child With Anxiety?
Although managing anxiety can be tricky, it can be dealt with appropriately at home, even without professional help.
Here are some tips to help your child manage anxiety:
- Validate their feelings. It is crucial to understand and respect their feelings. Try to say things like, “ It’s okay to be scared” or “ I would be anxious if I were you too”.
- Be encouraging and supportive. Instil confidence in your child by giving them positive messages such as “It is difficult, but I am confident you can do it.” It is vital to encourage them to face their fears and let them know that you are there to support them.
- Teach deep breathing. Simple breathing exercises can relax your child’s mind and calm them down. By inhaling and exhaling slowly, it can help to keep tensions under control, relax tightened muscles, and slow down a rapid heartbeat.
- Remember that the goal is to help your child manage anxiety and not eliminate it. Keep in mind that stress is very common in life and will only increase as you grow older. The message you want to send your child is that anxiety cannot be avoided and hence it is best to learn how to deal with it and keep it under control.
- Take some time to sit with them and talk it out. Discussing what they fear and what is causing their distress may help to ease things up and reduce their anxiety. You and your child can even discuss possible solutions to tackle the problem, which can significantly reduce their fear if they know there is a way to handle it.
What NOT to Do When Your Child Is Anxious
On the other hand, it is crucial to avoid the following when trying to manage your child’s anxiety as it may aggravate the situation instead:
- Do not ignore their feelings. Ignoring or even superficially acknowledging their emotions may send the wrong signal that their feeling is ‘wrong’. Avoid saying things like “You should not feel anxious” or “there is nothing to worry about”. This can lead them to believe that they are ‘inferior’ and even cause them to avoid expressing any emotions to you in future.
- Do not try to avoid their fears or problems. Although this may be effective in the short run, their worries will eventually reappear as they grow and may even be reinforced and worsen in future.
- Avoid being too optimistic or unrealistic. Even though it is essential to encourage them to face their fears, overpromising them can be detrimental as well as it sends a message to them that their problems will definitely be resolved if they try. However, this is not true all the time, and hence they may feel even more distressed if they fail.
- Avoid asking leading questions. Questions such as “Are you anxious about your upcoming examinations” tend to influence and guide them to think about their fears, which may cause them further distress. Instead, ask open-ended questions like “How do you feel about the examinations?”
While childhood anxiety is normal and a natural part of growth, excessive anxiety that impedes daily functions is not. Understanding and recognising anxiety symptoms and how to manage them ensures that your child does not develop further severe complications in the future.