This section provides information on signs of stress or anxiety in children.
Children demonstrate how they are coping through their behaviour. Often they are unable to express verbally what is wrong, and they may not be able to identify it. It is common for stress to show in areas such as sleep (disturbed sleep, nightmares, insomnia), appetite (loss of or increased), mood (increased irritability, mood swings) or behaviour (challenging behaviours).
If you notice changes in your child that have lasted more than a few weeks, consider what might be going on for them, either at school or at home.
Signs of anxiety may be behavioural or physical:
Why does my child have anxiety?
It is incorrect to argue that anxiety problems are wholly biological or brought upon by the environment. Children can be biologically pre-dispositioned to develop anxiety. There is often a close family member or someone in the extended family who has suffered from anxiety, and there is a hereditary component. On the other hand, there are many cases where there is no such family history. There may be a precipitating environmental trigger in the environment, such as a traumatic event. This is often the case with phobias, where a child is frightened by a big dog and then has a fear of dogs for life.
The only case where it is important to answer the question of 'why?' is where there is a suspicion that the child is currently undergoing trauma or stress in the environment which needs to be addressed; for example, in the case of abuse or bullying.
When to get help for childhood anxiety?
When the anxiety is having a significant effect on the child's life either in the home setting or at school, and the problem has persisted for more than a few weeks, it may be time to seek professional help.
Perhaps a first step could be to approach your child's school and see if they have a school counsellor or psychologist available. Explain to your child that it is a good thing to seek help from others when you are having a problem. Do not make them feel inadequate or ashamed at having to see a medical professional.
Many therapists will use cognitive behaviour therapy in treating anxiety. This is known to be a highly effective form of treatment. What it means is educating the child about their feelings, cognitions and behaviour, and enabling them to understand how these are causally linked. In anxious children, their anxious feelings and behaviour are usually linked to ineffective and inaccurate thinking habits, or 'thinking errors'. For example, a child who 'overgeneralises' may fear going to a swimming pool because of one frightening event that occurred at a swimming pool. A child who 'fears the worst' all the time, inaccurately predicts that their worst fear will always happen. These are two examples of thinking errors that can be worked on with a child. Raising their self awareness of their feelings, and giving them the strategies to cope when they feel the anxiety will empower them to deal with situations.
Strategies can be physical; ie. breathing and relaxation exercises, or mental ie. visualisation and guided imagery. Some psychologists use hypnosis which provides a deeper level of relaxation and uses alterations in consciousness to change automatic thoughts and behaviours.
What can parents do to help their anxious child?