Just like adults, children and young people experience feelings of anxiety and worry. Some amount of anxiety is normal and healthy! It can be a motivating feeling that contributes to better performance and can also help by keeping one vigilant for signs of danger. Such anxiety is experienced occasionally, such as when there is an upcoming exam or when children and young people undergo transitions in life, such as going from middle school to high school. Anxiety is also common in times of stressful life events such as parental separation, moving houses or schools, or even when trying new things.
So when is anxiety problematic?
When the levels of anxiety an individual experiences are so great that they interfere with everyday life, that’s when it is time to take a closer look. Anxiety, as helpful as it is sometimes, can cause damage to a child’s self-esteem, self-confidence and views about the world around them.
What does anxiety in children and young people look like?
It can be tough to know when a child is anxious, especially when they don’t wish to talk about what they are going through. Here are some things you can look out for that might indicate that a child is feeling chronically anxious.
- The child is clingy, tearful
- Sleep related issues including difficulty falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night; frequent nightmares
- Bed wetting
- Social withdrawal
In older children, there may also be
- A lack of confidence, even with tasks that are familiar or tasks that seem routine or everyday
- Persistent negative thoughts, rumination
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Anger outbursts or crying spells
- Avoidance of activities such as going to school, going out to play, going to social gatherings
There may be some physical indicators of anxiety as well such as rapid heart beat, increased blood pressure, nausea/vomiting, headaches, dizziness, excessive sweating, palpitations and others.
It can be difficult to see a child or young person struggle with anxiety. It may cause some anxiety in you too as you wonder how to help and try to figure out WHY this is happening. This is perfectly normal. And you are not alone. As per the National Mental Health Survey of India (2015-16; click here to read), children and adolescents also suffer from various mental health issues, with figures of anxiety among young people being as high as 15.5% in some states!
How Can You Support Children and Young People with Anxiety?
Anxiety can be a scary experience for both you and your child. However, there are many ways in which you can build a supportive and safe environment for a young person with anxiety.
- Start by slowing down. Anxiety can be very fast paced and is linked to the “fight-or-flight” response. Take some deep breaths with your child. Encourage them to breathe in through their nose for 3-5 counts and breathe out through their mouth for 3-5 counts. Repeat as many times as required. Often, helping the body relax has a relaxing effect on the mind as well.
- Talk to your child about anxiety. Making anxiety seem like something wrong or to be hushed up makes the entire feeling seem even scarier and it can be isolating. Talking to the person about what is happening in their body and why can disarm the anxious feelings to an extent and can prevent them from becoming too overwhelming.
- Validate and respect feelings but do not empower them. Anxiety is something we all face at some point in our lives. It is a natural reaction to stress. We live in a society where experiencing anxiety is often problematized and stigmatized. Adults face this too. It leads to silencing of narratives and can lead to feelings of ‘not being good enough.’ You can acknowledge that what your child is going through is a real issue and provide them a safe space in which they can express themselves without judgment. When someone feels anxious, they tend to avoid that which makes them afraid. While this is relieving in the short term, in the long term it reinforces the anxiety. Any message that tells the child “Yes this is scary and we should stay away from it!” will make the feelings stronger. A more suitable response might be “I know you are scared and that’s ok. I am here with you and we will get through this.”
- Be upfront about the scary stuff. Sometimes, children’s fears can be centered around difficult topics such as death, violence, loss, change, and ambiguity. Don’t be afraid to be frank about these topics or to discuss them. Facing them head on with your support is less scary than being in the dark.
- Prepare your child in advance if you know a big change is coming up, such as your starting a new job, shifting houses or any such life event.
- Lifestyle and stability elements can be calming for children. In the case of lifestyle, ensuring that your child has a healthy and active life can help reduce anxiety to a certain extent. Creating routines such as a bedtime routine or a daily routine can also make a difference to a person’s anxiety levels by making the environment a more predictable and safe space.
- There are also many techniques that can be used to help tackle anxiety. Don’t take all the responsibility for dealing with your child’s feelings. Rather, practice these techniques with them, while slowly decreasing the amount of supervision provided over time. Some ideas to reduce anxiety include
- Worry time
- Worry box
It is perfectly understandable if you read this article and your reaction is “Oh my God! I need to get help for my child immediately!” Take a deep breath. It is easy to get caught up in thinking of your child and their experience of anxiety as one in the same. Don’t forget, this person is still a young person with various likes and dislikes and an immense amount of potential. Take out time to play and have fun doing things they enjoy! Allow them to be free of the problematization of their feelings and just be themselves as they play, do art, sing, dance, etc. Personal touch can also soothe anxiety so hugs and cuddles go a long way as well! And if you feel like your child’s anxiety is affecting their growth and development adversely, look at professional interventions as well.