Childhood Anxiety – How Parents Can Help
Anxiety is the most common mental health concern for children and adults, affecting upwards of 20% of children and adolescents over the lifespan. It is also one of the most treatable.
Does any of this sound like your child?
- Clinging, crying and/or tantrums when you separate
- Excessive shyness, avoiding social situations
- Constant worry
- Avoiding situations or places because of fears
- Complaints of frequent stomachaches or headaches
- Experiencing sudden and frequent panic attacks
If you answered yes to any of these statements your child may be experiencing anxiety. The good news: Anxiety can be successfully managed!
Parents play an essential role in helping their child or teen manage anxiety. When coping skills and brave behavior is rewarded and practiced in the home, children and teens can learn to face their fears, take reasonable risks, and ultimately gain confidence.
According to Anxiety BC, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about anxiety disorders, promoting education and increasing access to resources and treatments, these are the first things you should know if your child is struggling with anxiety:
- Anxiety is normal. Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. It alerts us to threats, protects us from danger and helps us reach important goals. For example, it is normal to feel anxious when encountering a bear on a hike, or before taking an important exam.
- Anxiety is not dangerous. Although anxiety feels uncomfortable, it is temporary and will eventually decrease. The sensations we experience in an anxious situation are designed to alert and activate us. They are normal and part of our body’s natural response mechanism. Our body is smart enough to know when to “amp up” and when to “calm down.”
- Anxiety is adaptive. Anxiety helps us prepare for real danger, such as crossing a busy street. It can also help us perform at our best, and motivate us to study for an exam or practice for a big game. When we experience anxiety, it triggers our “fight-flight-freeze” response, and prepares our body to react. For instance, our heart beats faster to pump blood to our muscles, so we have the energy to run away or fight off danger. Without it, we would not survive. We need some anxiety.
- Anxiety is part of life. Trying to eliminate anxiety from your child’s life is almost impossible, and even if it were possible, we are not sure you will have created a life worth living for your child. Since anxiety is everywhere, one of the greatest gifts you can give your anxious child or teen is the confidence and skill to tolerate anxiety whenever it occurs, and to continue living his/her life anyway!
- Anxiety can become a problem. Small doses of anxiety in certain situations are useful. However, when your child is worrying much of the time, avoiding fun activities, or refusing to go to school because s/he is scared or worried, anxiety has become a problem. Think of anxiety like fog: if it covers everything, makes it hard to see, stops you from doing what you usually do, and generally gets in the way, then it has likely become a problem.
How can parents help?
An important step in helping your child cope is to learn as much as you can about anxiety; so you can help your child to understand what is happening when they are anxious and begin to work on coping strategies so that avoidance behaviours do not become a habit.
A common strategy used to help children is developing a fear ladder. A fear ladder gradually exposes children to the thing that is causing them to be anxious. Dr. Lynn Miller from The Anxiety Projects Lab, a research and training group at the University of British Columbia has produced a number of videos for parents to watch, click here to see how she builds a fear ladder.
Dealing with Separation Anxiety
According to Anxiety BC, it is normal for young children to sometimes feel worried or upset when faced with routine separations from their parents or other important caregivers causing them to cry, cling, or refuse to part. Usually such separation anxiety fades as they grow up, begin school, and gain confidence. However, for some children their response to actual or anticipated separations is far more extreme than their peers, and/or continues well beyond the first 1-2 years of school. For these children it is likely that they may have separation anxiety disorder and may need the support of a professional to work through their anxiety. Anxiety BC has also prepared this wonderful tip sheet, with more information about how to overcome separation anxiety when starting kindergarten.
Where to get help in the Sea to Sky Corridor
If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, your first stop can be your family doctor. Your family doctor can refer your child for further assessment by a pediatrician or child psychiatrist. Or Child and Youth Mental Health have free drop-in intake days. They are located at 1100 Hunter Place (behind Nester’s Market) in Squamish
- Tuesdays from 9am to 11:30am
- Wednesdays from 1pm to 3:30pm
- Phone: 604.892.1400