One of the most startling things I have seen over the last few years has been the growing number of children who visit my clinic with symptoms of anxiety. It is also something I often chat to other parents about at my children’s schools, especially what we can do to help kids reduce anxiety in their lives.
Children of all ages can suffer from anxiety. In this blog, I will focus on school-aged children (I’ll cover toddler anxiety in a future blog).
What is anxiety?
Anxiety may not always be obvious. Most of the time, a family comes to see me because they have a different concern, such as their child’s learning or behaviour, and it becomes clear that anxiety is also a problem. For other children, there are clear triggers for anxiety, such as trouble at home, bullying or friendship issues, or moving house or school, which are stressful for any child to deal with.
The pace and structure of our lives can cause our children to become anxious without us knowing it. I know these things have become issues for my children at times:
- over scheduling with no time for play or down time
- too much screen time
- not enough sleep
- a diet with too much processed food and lots of sugar.
As a parent, it may be hard to know whether your child has a normal degree of worry or whether they are showing signs of anxiety that are starting to affect their life – that is, their friendships are suffering, they are not learning well, their behavior is hard to manage or they are struggling to sleep.
Look out for these behaviours, as they may be signs your child is developing anxiety:
- constantly worrying that bad things may happen
- avoiding playing with friends or attending birthday parties
- complaining of pains in the tummy or head, or feeling sick (they spend a lot of time in sick bay at school)
- difficulty falling asleep
- difficulty concentrating in class
- lots of tantrums, meltdowns or acting out
- tearfulness and being generally very moody.
Tips for reducing anxiety
If your child is displaying anxiety behaviours, you might like to try these techniques:
- Discuss your child’s feelings
Explain to your child that those butterflies in their stomach, quick heart rate or sweaty palms are a result of worry, and that it’s normal for everyone to worry from time to time. This can make it feel real and help them to understand what is happening. Tell them you also experience these feelings, which helps children not to be ashamed of these feelings and to start talking about them, rather than bottling things up.
- Teach them relaxation or mindfulness exercises
Teaching kids relaxation or breathing exercises with music or a calm voice can be a great first step to help them deal with anxiety. Many Victorian schools are introducing ‘mindfulness sessions’ into the curriculum, where kids learn to calm their thoughts and bodies to enhance their learning. There are apps available to help you teach your child mindfulness at home, such as the free Smiling Mind app, which takes children through age-appropriate guided meditations. I do these myself at the end of a hard day and I’ve done them with my older kids and they love them.
- Teach them how to understand their worries and how to deal with them
Children can be taught the difference between ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’ worries. A helpful worry might be that they have homework due the next day, so they can be taught to manage this. An unhelpful worry might be that their parent is going to die in a car accident.
- Using a ‘worry box’. The child writes down their worries and puts them in the box next to their bed – this helps to name their fears. Children learn quickly that ‘unhelpful’ worries can be placed in the ‘worry box’, or buried in the ‘worry hole’. Helpful worries usually have a solution!
- Teaching your child to rate their feelings. Children can be taught to rate their feelings from one (feeling great) to 10 (feeling bad). When their feelings are rating above a six or seven, your child need to use some techniques, such as relaxation of mindfulness exercises, to bring these feelings down before they escalate further.
- Speak to their teacher
Speak to your child’s teacher if you are worried your child seems anxious, as chances are the teacher has noticed signs too. It can also help to inform the teacher of any issues at home or if your child is experiencing bullying. Cyber bullying is a growing problem and something we need to watch out for.
- Seek professional help
If you think anxiety may be affecting your child’s life, then speak to a school counselor or trusted school staff member as a first step. You may need to see a clinical psychologist, GP or paediatrician if things don’t improve.
Both your GP and paediatrician can refer your child to a psychologist under a mental health care plan, which allows for 10 Medicare rebatable sessions that will help with the cost of the psychology sessions.
Here are some resources I recommend:
- Smiling Mind app: http://smilingmind.com.au
- Books eg: “What to do when you worry too much” or “What to do when you dread your bed”, by Dawn Huebner
- Beyond Blue: http://www.beyondblue.org.au
- Kids Helpline Ph: 1800 55 1800 or Parentline Victoria Ph: 13 22 89
The earlier we can teach our kids to understand and manage their own feelings, the better equipped they will be to deal with their busy lives.
Please note: Dr Margie is no longer monitoring this post. If you are concerned about your child, please contact your paediatrician or GP for advice.