It’s unlikely your child has ever told you they have an anxiety problem. Here’s what you’ll hear instead: I have a headache. My tummy hurts. I don’t want to go to the party. I can’t get anything right.
Anxiety disorder affects up to 30% of children and adolescents. But only an estimated 20% of those with a diagnosable anxiety disorder will receive treatment.
The Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report 2018 says that over the past decade there has been greater recognition of anxiety in young people by health care providers, including a 17% increase in anxiety disorder diagnosis.
Yet, anxiety symptoms are often downplayed or ignored. In fact, as little as 1% of youth with anxiety seek treatment in the year the symptoms begin.
One of the reasons anxiety remains untreated is because it is so difficult to detect, especially in children. For parents, it’s tricky to know the difference between normal worries and something more serious.
Normal childhood concerns include being mildly upset before or after attending school or childcare, shyness, worries about others laughing at them, worrying about performance at school, sport or their health.
However, causes for concern include:
- Constant meltdowns over minor issues
- Sleep disturbances
- Regular stomach pains and/or headaches
- Intense struggles with perfectionism
Identifying anxiety disorder
Researchers have found there are two questions parents can ask themselves to help identify children at risk of developing an anxiety disorder:
- Is my child more shy or anxious than other children his or her age?
- Is my child more worried than other children his or her age?
In a US study of 200 kindergarten children, researchers found these questions to be 85% effective in identifying children who met the criteria for anxiety disorders. In other words, parents have a good idea about what is going on with their kids.
Other indicators of childhood anxiety disorder include:
- Constant aches. Anxiety often presents as aches and pains. If your child reports regular stomach and head aches, see a GP to rule out any physical causes.
- Agitation/restless behaviour. Kids with anxiety often cannot sit still. They also may engage in strange self-soothing techniques such as scratching, pulling hair or biting.
- Avoidance. Children with anxiety will try to prevent negative feelings by staying away from anxiety-producing situations.
- Meltdowns. Tantrums over minor issues that do not seem age appropriate can be an indicator of anxiety.
- Perfectionism. Children with anxiety often have extreme dedication to getting things “just right”.
As a parent, what can I do to help my child?
Director of Wellbeing for Kids and Melbourne anxiety-expert Georgina Manning said there were many things parents could do to help their children process anxiety.
Reassure your child that anxiety is normal, that having fears and worries is normal” — says Manning.
Remind your child that anxiety is not dangerous – it is just a feeling that people have. Reassure them you can relax and calm yourself down when anxious through using calming strategies, talking to someone or finding something fun or interesting to do.”
Ms. Manning says it is important to help children recognise how anxiety feels in their body. This may include identifying experiences such as a jumpy tummy, feeling sick, heart racing and feeling dizzy.
“Share how anxiety feels in your body as well (to help normalise anxious feelings). Explain that this is the body’s way of letting them know there is danger so they can keep themselves safe,” she says.
Explaining anxiety using an analogy
Ms. Manning suggests explaining the body’s reaction to anxiety like a smoke alarm going off in the house when there is fire. When we get worried our ‘smoke alarm’ goes off. Our bodies respond by having a racing heart, feeling a bit sick, getting dizzy and tensing up our muscles.
If children are old enough, more scientific details can be included. For example, the smoke alarm is the part of the brain called the amygdala. When this is activated, this sets off the adrenal glands which then fires off the body’s response to prepare for danger.
“It is important to explain that sometimes the smoke alarm goes off when it doesn’t need to. This is when we worry about something that is not dangerous to us (even though it feels like it is),” says Ms. Manning.
“Our bodies are still reacting to this danger even though it is not real. We can, however, slow down our bodies and stop the smoke alarm by calming ourselves down with a range of helpful strategies, such as practicing mindfulness exercises.”
If you suspect your child has a problem with anxiety, see your local GP. There is a range of effective therapies that can help children deal with anxiety before it becomes a more serious mental health problem. Left untreated, anxiety can lead to eating disorders, substance abuse and debilitating anxiety disorders.
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