Childhood Anxiety in Children & Teens
An Expert's Guide for Parents wanting to help their Children & Teenagers with Anxiety(2019)
Anxiety. This topic has been on our hearts for a while now, as the pressures felt by the youth and students of all ages are increasing every year.
What can we as parents do, to not only understand our children and teens, but to equip them with the tools to deal with the pressures that they are facing in their everyday youthful lives?
How do we go about handling this, while teaching our children that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with them; feeling anxious and having emotions is normal and in fact, makes them better for it. Anxiety has nothing to do with your character and how strong you are, it effects the most confident, strong people in the world.
Anxiety can affect anyone. Young, old, male, female, we all experience it to a certain extent in our lives. How we deal with it is what makes the difference.
We have compiled this in-depth guide or ‘handbook’ to help you, as parents, to understand exactly what your child or teen is going through and how to encourage and strengthen them in order to turn their worries into wins.
Let’s dive right in.
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We explain what anxiety is, how it might make one feel and how to understand it better.
What is Anxiety and How to Understand it Better
Anxiety is classified as having ‘intense, persistent fears and worries about everyday life situations’.
This can cause sweating, chills, increased heart rate, loss of appetite, depression and exhaustion. Not exactly something you would wish upon your child, yet the reality is that an ever-increasing amount of children are battling with this very issue and are not able to handle these types of emotions. If we are not fully aware of the causes, effects and solutions that surround this topic, we cannot equip our young ones with the tools to cope with the intensifying pressures of academics, sport, their peers and social acceptance; to name a few; that they are continually faced with. According to an article published on The South African Depression and Anxiety Groups website, betwee 8 and 11% of all children and adults suffer from anxiety to the extent that it affects their daily lives.
After having spoken with a group of adults and children with various degrees of anxiety, the general consensus is that extreme anxiety can have you feeling ‘like you can’t breathe’, ‘the walls are closing in and you are feeling trapped’, ‘your chest wants to explode and your whole body feels numb’, ‘you’re in a dark hole and do not know how to get out’, ‘you’re all alone and nobody can help you’. These are pretty intense emotions for an adult to experience, let alone a child. We dont want our youth to get to this stage.
Constantly feeling as if your chest is tightening and certain situations leaving you panic stricken are very real realities that people and children with anxiety have to face every day. According to psychologist Dr Helen Clark in an article on Parent24 Struggling with an anxious Child, “There’s tremendous anxiety in kids and we’re definitely seeing an increase”. Dr Clark goes on to explain that children with anxiety are often misunderstood and thought to be shy or angry or simply upset, when the reality is that they are unable to express themselves correctly. This takes us to our next point on recognizing anxiety and stress in your child.
Signs & Symptoms of Anxiety
The flashing red lights that you need to look out for when it comes to your children. The following signs could be pointing toward anxiety in your child.
Signs and Symptons to watch out for
There are some key behavioural and physical signs and symptoms that teenagers and children with anxiety may exhibit. We have listed mostly behavioural signs and symptoms below. Teens might show many of these signs outside of the home environment, so being aware of any sudden changes in your child's mood is very important.
Some Physical Symptoms of Anxious Children - Teens
Here are some physical symptoms to be on the lookout for. However, do treat with caution as these changes may be the cause of some other issue as well. Changes in behaviour may not be solely due to anxiety, as there are other causes that can contribute to your child's happiness.
Some Behavioural Symptoms of Anxiety in Children - Teens
The symptoms listed below could be tell tale signs that your child is struggling with anxiety and is in need of some help.
Difficulty in sleeping
Children often struggle to get to sleep at night due to feelings of unrest and stress, leaving them lethargic the following day.
Irritability, especially when there are upcoming tests or exams
Children who usually take things in their stride are exhibiting signs of irritation, frustration and even anger towards test and exam preparations or even specific classes that they are taking. (Remember anxiety can stem from many causes, even a teacher or peer within the classroom).
Change in Demeanor
Your child has lost his / her usual can-do and vibrant outlook on life and has been replaced with a sullen, quiet version that you are not used to seeing.
Loss of appetite
Pushing food around on their plate, skipping meals or not eating their lunch at school. A decrease in appetite is a definite warning sign that you should look out for.
Avoiding certain situations
Anxiety is not only restricted to the school grounds, so be aware if your child suddenly does all they can to avoid something or someone specific. Perhaps a friends’ home that has always been a comfort and enjoyable space, is now the last thing your child wants to be a part of and they will do anything and make any excuse not to be in that particular place or situation. This is a very serious warning sign and not one that should be taken lightly.
Seeking Constant Attention
Anxiety leaves one feeling very unsure of oneself and a child, especially, will seek out extra attention and reassurance. Clinginess, neediness and regression toward the type of behaviour of a younger, less independent version of themselves are often linked to feelings of anxiety and unrest.
Not wanting to go to school
Is your child feigning illness day after day in order to avoid school? Have they gone from a happy school goer to doing just about anything to stay at home? Alarm bells should be ringing at this point as such a sudden change in behaviour goes hand in hand with feelings of stress and unhappiness in children.
A child suddenly suffering from daily headaches or stomach pain is a definite warning sign. Anxiety manifests in physical ailments such as nausea, tension in the neck or shoulders, or even an upset stomach.
Panicking over Small Issues
People with anxiety often break out in a sweat when thinking of or in the midst of a stressful circumstance. Should situations that you would view as inconsequential leave your child in a panic stricken state (and this did not happen before), they are more than likely suffering from anxiety.
These are only a few simple examples of signs to look out for. However, you as a parent know your child best and will recognize when they are acting differently. The key here is to not dismiss any of these signs and to face facts and pluck up the courage to sit down and have a heart to heart with your child.
Talking to Your Child about Anxiety
Tips and steps to open up the gateway of communication and start the healing process with your child
Talking to Your Anxious Child: Where to Begin
Now that we know what to look out for, how on Earth do we approach this? Firstly, be very careful not to bombard your child with too many questions as this will prevent them from opening up to you.
For someone with these intense feelings the last thing they want is to feel pressured or pushed into a corner and told “they have anxiety”. (Again, the stigmas attached to the word ‘anxiety’ may very well not encourage your child to listen let alone share with you during this delicate conversation).
The following steps will enable you to have an open, honest conversation with your child.
Pick your moment to help
The last thing you want to happen is for your child to be in a state of panic or distress when you approach them, as this will only worsen the situation and make it far more difficult to start this conversation up again. Make the effort to chat to your child when they are relaxed and maybe doing something they enjoy, such as going shopping with you or helping to cook a meal. Ensure that you are spending quality, relaxed time with no added pressure, as this will create a safe space for them to open up to you.
Talking to someone about anxiety in the midst of a crisis can cause heightened feelings of stress and discomfort and will severely diminish your chances of having future conversations about dealing with these topics and turning it into a positive attribute.
Help your child by relating to them on their level
When it comes to children and having ‘heart to hearts,’ it is vital that you talk to them and not at them. Your child needs to know that you are relating to them and making the effort to understand them and how they feel; and trust me they know the difference.
Certain signs of body language can also be a big help in making your child feel safe, such as sitting down with them, looking at them during the conversation and making every attempt to keep your own posture and facial expressions relaxed and soft. No child wants to share how they feel inside with a parent that is clearly exhibiting signs of irritation or impatience.
Help your child recognize anxiety by sharing your own fears and worries
This is a big one. If your child realizes that you, as the grown up, also experience worries and fears, they will immediately feel less alone and much less self-conscious, as they know that you are also only human and have the same feelings as they do.
You could share with them some of the times you have felt anxious at work over a big project or meeting; or how fast your heart was beating, as you had to speak to a large group of people. Once you start opening up to your child on an equal level, the conversation will start to flow.
Never, ever, dismiss emotions
Hands down the biggest mistake you can make is to discount or dismiss your child’s emotions. Sure, you might feel that their anxiety about an upcoming exam or school trip is hardly worth sweating over, but to them these emotions are very real and in their world, well worth the worry. When we reject our children’s feelings and opinions we are telling them that what they think does not hold merit, and this will result in your child shutting down and withdrawing themselves from opening up to you as well as damage their sense of self worth.
Accept their responses
As adults we need to accept that our children’s outlooks and opinions are not on the same level as ours. What they may feel is the end of the world, might appear to us as incredibly insignificant and not even remotely worth stressing over. However, to them it’s real. The feelings and anxiety that they experience are entirely theirs and have merit. When talking to your child about their emotions, you must accept exactly how they feel and how their stress affects them, without questioning their rationality or implying that their views are wrong.
Insinuating that what your child is going through holds any less value, is one of the biggest mistakes you can make, as this will leave them feeling small and wanting to shut down from you emotionally.
Teach them that it’s okay
Children are far more perceptive than we realize, and it’s this observant nature that can so easily cause them to feel as if they are abnormal, compared to their seemingly carefree peers.
A child who suffers from anxiety will notice the difference within themselves in comparison to others. This can often cause feelings of shame and guilt as they struggle to comprehend why they are anxious or whether there is something wrong with them.
This is where your role as the parent is of the utmost importance, as you have the opportunity here to not only relate to your child but also encourage and re-instill a bit of confidence within them. Explain to your child that adults (as well as many other children) also become anxious and experience difficult situations, and don’t always know what to do. It is, in fact, completely normal and okay to have such emotions and it’s even more okay to talk about them. It does not make them any less of a stronger individual when they share how they feel.
Are You adding Pressure
Does your ‘straight A student’ have to report back to you after each and every test, project, oral and exam result? Has the slightest dip in marks ever had you scolding them or telling them you expected better?
Are you adding unnecessary pressure to your Teen?
As parents, we want nothing more for our kids than to be successful, and we know that this requires hard work. It is so important to encourage and assist our children to reach their goals and to teach them to put in the time and effort to do so.
However, there is a very fine line between motivating and helping your child; and being the cause of their anxiety. For someone who suffers from anxiety the last thing they need is for another source of pressure to be thrown into the mix. As a parent, you should always be your child’s safety net and place of solace where they can confide in you about their worries in confidence.
According to an article published on verywellfamily.com putting too much added pressure on children can lead to the following outcomes:
Higher rates of mental illness
Increased likelihood of cheating
Refusing to participate in activities
There are various views which suggest that children are being pressurized too much and others saying that they are not being pressurized enough. This, however, is a personal decision, which each parent has to make.
Turning those Worries into Wins
Out of this entire guide this is the chapter you want to sit up for and take notes, as this is where we want to learn to empower our children. The following tips and techniques will help your child to understand that they are bigger than their fears.
How to help your child with Anxiety?
Speak those Fears out Aloud
Your child should understand that their worries and stressors are not who they are. Anxiety does not define them. By saying out aloud what they are anxious about, they are taking the first step towards overcoming their fears. Encourage your child to tell you what they are worried about at the start of each day and motivate them to accept their feelings, while realizing that they can overcome them.
Now that your child is able to say what they are anxious about, teach them ways in which to deal with these issues. If the worry of the day is an upcoming maths test, explain to your child that they may feel scared and stressed, and that those feelings are perfectly normal. However, the way in which they deal with those emotions, is the answer.
Your child can choose to breathe and remain calm; and when they feel (during their test) that panic is taking over, put their pens down, close their eyes and breathe deeply for a minute or two. This will return their breathing and heart rate to normal and they will feel more relaxed and confident to continue. Should they become ‘stuck’ on a question and want to burst into tears; they can move onto the other questions, do them to the best of their ability and come back to that tricky one at the end. And hey, if they don’t even answer that question, but remain composed, that’s good enough. Remember, conquering their fears is what’s important here, not only their academics.
Learn to be Logical
One of the best tools you can give your child is the ability to know the difference between what is a rational fear and what is not. What is in our control and what is beyond our control.
If your child tends to have a knee jerk reaction toward seeing only the negative, what you need to do is teach them to look at each situation for what it is. What are the positives and what have we learnt from the outcome. Showing empathy is also a key factor here, as your child will be comforted and feel better about themselves knowing their parent sympathizes and understands them. If they did an oral presentation at school and forgot some of their lines, but managed to get through it without having to stop halfway due to stress, that in itself is a triumph. Make the effort to point out every little victory, as they will outweigh the losses.
Communicate through Play
It can be difficult to effectively communicate with young children and help them express their fears, as well as make them understand how to deal with them properly. A great way to do this, as discussed in an article by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, is making use of play therapy. According to their research, sitting down with a young child and role playing with them and their toys about scary or stressful situations will enable and encourage them to be more open and to communicate their feelings. Make up stories, draw pictures of talk through a specific fear or worry that your child may have, while using their teddies or toys as the "voice" for this exercise.
Encourage Healthy Worrying
Telling a child that they may not worry or should not spend any time worrying is not a practical solution. Your child will continue to stress regardless, however, managed in the correct way a certain amount of worry can be healthy. Set aside time each day or a few times per week when your child can 'worry freely' for that amount of time. This can also be a positive exercise where you child voices their emotions and fears and you can discuss them and come up with solutions together. Children can even write their fears down, discuss them and then tear those pieces of paper up as they let go of their worries.
Set a Routine
Children struggling with anxiety need to feel safe and that their life has structure. Incorporate as much of a positive healthy lifestyle as you can each and every day.
A few basic steps that can be implemented daily:
Healthy food and less sugar
Taking time out from homework and playing outside
Drinking enough water and less unhealthy drinks such as soft drinks and processed juices
Another constructive way to teach your child to keep growing emotionally is to keep a positivity journal. At the start and end of each day they should jot down what they have learnt and what they would like to do better next time, while acknowledging their wins and how far they have come.
With every new situation that arises be sure to communicate with your child and show them that you are there for them. They can confide in you without you passing any judgement, and together you will find solutions to each and every problem. Encourage your child to say what they think should happen or be done and form a united front. Teaching your children to think for themselves and to trust their own instincts will instill confidence within them when they are older and faced with more daunting decisions and life lessons.
Tools and Resources for Ongoing Support
Now that we have taught our children to trust themselves and accept their emotions, how do we keep them empowered? How do we ensure that our young ones can cope when we are not around or when sudden situations arise?
Resources to help you with Anxiety
With the technology-based society in which we live, there is an app for everything and resources for anxiety do not fall short. There are a myriad of apps available for meditation, white noise, yoga for children, stretching exercises and positivity.
Listed below are our top 10 App choices for children of all ages.
One of our favourites, Headspace offers guided meditation sessions for people of all ages and at all levels. Start with a simple 5 minutes of breathing deeply to longer, more advanced meditative sessions.
This is also a fantastic one, as it can be used by children of all ages. Each new session starts with a few questions to focus the mind for meditation. This specific app also keeps track of your progress as you move forward and grow.
This particular app provides various topics, from focusing on happiness to breathing and meditation, to working on self-esteem. The sessions can also be set to different times, anything from 3min for that quick mind reset to 25min for when you have more time on your hands. Mindful Powers: This app teaches children to think about others and introduces mindfulness. Through a set of intertwining stories, children are taught to focus and calm their thoughts as well as to breathe deeply. A great start for younger, developing minds.
Issues such as low self-esteem, anxiety, stress & worry are part of negative thought patterns people of all ages struggle with. Hello Mind teaches you to break those patterns and change the way you think in order to live life and have a more positive outlook.
This one is geared towards teenagers as they are taught to “chill” and take a breather when things are stressful. Through daily exercises, audio tracks, activities and reminders, teenagers are able to overcome those moments of feeling completely overwhelmed.
Turn screen time into ME time and have your children listen to and work with these apps, rather than spending time watching endless YouTube videos that don’t add any value to their lives.
We hope this guide has been informative and helpful in recognising and dealing with anxiety in our children and teenagers.
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