What is it?
Anxiety is an unpleasant feeling of fear and apprehension that can prevent children from participating in activities and interfere with their learning and development. A diagnosed anxiety disorder will depend on how often, how easily and how intensely a child experiences the emotional symptoms of anxiety and how much it interferes with their everyday living.
Whether it is separation anxiety, shyness, unwillingness to go to school, fear of public speaking or a more generalized fear, all children feel anxious sometimes. If the condition persists over a longer period of time, though, your child may have an anxiety disorder. Children with anxiety symptoms are more likely to go on to experience depression as teenagers.
Is it common?
According to BeyondBlue, generalized anxiety disorder affects around 5% of people in Australia at some point in their lives.
As with all behavioural conditions, studies show that the earlier assessment and treatment can begin, the better.
With regards to children and general anxiety, Macquarie University’s Faculty of Human Sciences estimates that around 10% of children have problems coping with anxiety. Many will grow out of it, but anxiety in childhood can persist with age, so early-intervention strategies are the most effective.
What are the causes?
Some of the common contributing causes can include:
- Your child’s personality. Some children are naturally more reserved or shy than others, and may be more prone to anxiety.
- Specific stress. A specific incident (for example, a car accident, a dog bite) could trigger anxiety in your child.
- Ongoing stress. Some form of ongoing stress (for example, conflict at home or bullying at school) could trigger the development of anxiety.
- Learned anxiety. Children may learn (through the news, for example) that the world is a dangerous place. This fear can trigger a general anxiety.
What are the symptoms?
The Australian Psychological Society, through their “Kids Matter” website provides the followings tips on some common symptoms of anxiety:
• Fear and avoidance of a range of issues and situations.
• Headaches and stomach aches that seem to occur when the child has to do something that is unfamiliar or that they feel uneasy about.
• Sleep problems, including problems falling asleep, nightmares, trouble sleeping alone.
• Lots of worries and a strong need for reassurance.
• Wanting things to be perfect. For example, a child may be so dissatisfied with his/her own work that he/she will tear it up and redo it several times.
• Reluctance to ask for help. Sometimes anxiety creates an obstacle that prevents children asking for help from the teacher about a problem with learning. Children who ask too much for reassurance may also be overly anxious.
• Difficulty joining in. Children with high levels of anxiety may be afraid to join in class discussion, take part in sport or games or go to school camp.
• Requests to go to sick bay. Anxious children often complain of stomach aches and headaches.
• Fear of test situations. Some children do not do as well as they can in test conditions because they are struggling with anxiety. They may be too self-conscious to perform in front of the class.
What are the treatments?
As with all behavioural conditions, studies show that the earlier assessment and treatment can begin, the better. While medication may be needed in some cases, the majority of children will benefit most from training and encouragement. This may take the form of teaching you as the parent some strategies to encourage your child without overprotecting them as well as teaching your child how to recognise their own anxiety and learn how to manage it.
The Australian Psychological Society provides some excellent online resources here and of course never hesitate to seek professional medical advice.