Anxiety in Children
What is anxiety in children?
Anxiety, like fear, is the normal response of the body to any situation perceived as threatening, and affects adults and children alike. When faced with a situation that provokes fear or anxiety, individuals have reacted in the same way since the earliest times, by preparing to fight or flee.
This response is involuntary, but can be modified by adults in their conscious mind. However, children are less able to control or understand their feelings in this way. All they understand is fear, which causes them to become anxious. Unless that fear is removed, the child will continue to be fretful and manifest the physical symptoms of anxiety.
A degree of anxiety can be beneficial (for example, before an exam or sporting event it may even enhance performance), but a more generalized feeling of anxiety over a period of time may affect the child's outlook on life and even lead to physical illness.
What causes anxiety in children?
Anxiety in children can have many causes, some of which may seem irrational or even absurd to parents.
Common causes include the arrival of a new baby, who may be seen as supplanting an older child in their parents' affections; fear of going to school, perhaps because of bullying or worrying about being unable to keep up; a change in the normal daily
routine, such as moving house or spending a night with relatives or friends.
Worrying about other people (for example, if the parents' relationship is going through a sticky patch or if there is illness in the family) can lead to anxiety, particularly if the child does not fully understand what is going on. Sexual or physical abuse will make a child feel isolated and anxious, and this will be heightened if the abuser has threatened terrible consequences if the child speaks out.
- Disruption of normal sleeping and eating habits.
- A change in energy levels.
- Unwillingness to leave parents, or mix with others.
- Personality change.
- Reversion in behaviour such as bedwetting.
- Frequent headaches and stomach aches.
Parents may cause anxiety in their child by expecting too much in the way of good behavior, achievement at school, or staying dry at night. They can also pass on their own fears through their behavior and reactions, (perhaps a fear of spiders or of visiting the dentist).
A lively imagination can lead to anxiety as children imagine getting lost, their house burning down, or a parent being killed. This type of fear may be induced by watching certain television programmes, or overhearing part of an adult conversation.
How is anxiety in children diagnosed and treated?
Parents or other adults close to the child are usually the first to notice any signs of anxiety. These vary from individual to individual, but may include changes in behaviour, particularly in sleeping and eating habits; changes in energy levels; an unwillingness to leave parents or to mix with other children; and changes in personality, with the child often becoming more withdrawn or aggressive.
A child may also develop aches and pains and nervous mannerisms that cannot be explained by the doctor and may revert to more babyish behaviour such as bedwetting or wanting to be fed.
Treatment is ideally by removing the cause of the anxiety, although it may take time before the child is reassured. If you cannot determine the cause and the child continues to show signs of anxiety, you should see your doctor, who may recommend that your child sees a child psychologist, or that the whole family undergoes counselling.
When should I see my doctor?
If you cannot find the cause of your child's anxiety after talking with him or her and perhaps also school teachers, or if it persists or becomes worse, see your doctor, especially if the child develops any unexplained physical symptoms.
What will the doctor do?
Your doctor will ask questions about what is happening in your child's life and to the family in general. Often just talking to a sympathetic outsider and acting on the doctor's
suggestions is enough to resolve the situation but, if not, the doctor may either refer the child to a child psychiatrist or psychologist, or recommend that the entire family see a therapist.
Treatment is by trying to resolve the problem; only in exceptional cases is medication recommended.
What can I do myself?
The cause may be obvious to you as soon as you stop to think about what may be worrying your child, or they may be able to tell you. If the child cannot express what is causing the fear, try not to push, as this can result in more anxiety. Clear explanations and reassurance, a change in routine, or talking to a teacher or playgroup leader may be enough to remove the cause.
If you suspect your behavior may be adding to the child's anxiety, try to modify it, for example by not arguing or discussing your own worries in the child's presence. Never tease or mock your child. If there is no improvement, make an appointment to see your doctor.
Is anxiety in children dangerous?
As anxious behavior is a child's way of calling attention to something that is wrong, ignoring the signs may lead to greater problems. Always seek help sooner rather than later.
Your doctor will be able to put you in touch with the local child guidance clinic, if necessary.