Anxiety in Children: How You Can Help
Just like adult’s, children can also suffer from anxiety.
In fact, anxiety in children should be expected at specific times during development and is in those cases regarded as normal (for example, the first day of school).
Some children may also suffer from excessive shyness and may struggle to adjust to new situations.
Children may not yet have the ability to vocalise their feelings, nor the coping skills needed to manage them – making their fears and anxiety even more difficult for them to cope with.
Most children have short-lived fears, and quickly grow out of them as they learn through experience that there is no real danger in the things they fear.
For example, a child will learn that there are no monsters under the bed or that when mum leaves for work, she will come back at the end of the day. This is regarded as a routine part of development.
Some children are more anxious than others and may need additional reassurance or help from a professional, especially if an Anxiety disorder is suspected.
Anxiety becomes a problem if it begins to affect your child’s daily routine and functioning or if it is causing your child significant distress.
It’s estimated that anywhere between 8-22% of children experience anxiety more intensely and more often than other children, stopping them from getting the most out of life.
What Causes Anxiety in Children?
- Separation Anxiety is very normal in young children and usually subsides with age. Faced with separation from familiar people, your child may throw tantrums, refuse to go to school or become insistently clingy, tearful or manipulative. If an older child or teenager persists with this behaviour, they may have separation anxiety disorder and professional help may be required.
- Change and Fear of The Unknown. Like adults, children often fear the unknown and are cautious in new and unfamiliar situations. The first day of school, meeting new people or moving neighbourhoods can be an anxious time for your child.
- Traumatic Events. Unpleasant or bad experiences can lead a child to believe that certain things are ‘dangerous’ or threatening. This could include an embarrassing social situation, or one that caused physical harm or fright (such as a dog bite or a near accident). In particularly distressing situations there is the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and your child may need professional counselling.
- School Related Problems. Your child may be anxious about something going on at school such as bullying, trouble making friends, or a strict teacher. In some cases the anxiety may stem from difficulties coping with school work and a learning disorder may be the root cause.
- Family Problems. A disturbance in the home environment may cause your child to feel anxious. Hearing or seeing parents continually fight can be particularly distressing for your child and make them feel insecure. Other family issues that may lead to an anxious child are separations and divorce, death or illness in the family, and inconsistent or harsh discipline.
- Learned Behaviour. Children can often ‘pick up’ or adopt anxious behaviour from parents. This is especially true for children with over-protective or overly anxious parents (who themselves may suffer from an anxiety disorder).
Current Medical Options for Anxiety
The use of medications for anxiety and depression in adolescents and younger children is becoming more common in Australia and other Western countries.
Psychological interventions (talk therapy) are recommended as the first-line treatment according to the Anxiety Disorders Drug Treatment Guidelines.
Often this is overlooked or deemed too expensive and/or time consuming and medication is prescribed.
Fluvoxamine (Prozac) and Venlafaxine (Effexor) are usually the go to medication for these children but both have been linked with a high incidence of suicidal ideation.
In 2004, the U.S. Drug Advisory Body passed down a recommendation that all SSRI medication carry a warning label that states “use of this medication may cause suicidal thoughts or suicide in adolescents and children”.
Prescription of antidepressants rose in Australia for under 20 year olds from 69,325 prescriptions per month in 2002, to 78,876 per month in 2003.
Anxious children are often misdiagnosed with ADHD and put on stimulants. This can cause the anxiety to increase and make troublesome sleeping even worse.
Alternative Treatment Options for Childhood Anxiety
Anxiety is a multifactorial condition and is best treated holistically. Natural or non-drug therapies can effectively treat social anxiety and social phobia.
Non-medical treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy, exercise, dietary changes and relaxation techniques.
Help your child or teen learn to cope with social anxiety, reduce stress and thrive.
Herbal and Nutritional Help
Mild social anxiety responded well to nervine herbs such as Passionflower and German Chamomile. They act to reduce nervousness, restlessness and irritability in children.
Making sure magnesium levels are optimal may also help with energy production, nerve function, muscle relation and helps us deal with daily stress.
Metagenics Children’s Relaxation Formula combines calming herbs Passionflower and Chamomile with Magnesium to relieve symptoms of anxiety and sleeplessness.
Children who suffer from anxiety may exhibit intestinal symptoms such as nausea, stomachaches, diarrhea and vomiting. Controlling anxiety may reduce these troubling tummy issues.
Basic dietary guidelines include avoidance of simple carbohydrates found in sugary snack foods, popular cereals and white breads. To read more about the harmful effect of gluten on children’s stomachs, click here.
Artificial colourings, flavourings and sweeteners are types of food additives that can lead to increased anxiety in children. While some children appear to be unaffected, others are highly sensitive to them and will develop negative side effects which may exacerbate their irritability and anxiety.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) comprises relaxation exercises that ease the physical symptoms of anxiety and aims to retrain negative thought patterns.
Gradual exposure to social situations reduces fear. Group social-skills training and role-playing exercises can also reduce children’s social anxiety (see example below).
Find a therapist your child likes and allow time for therapy to work. Family therapy may also play a role in supporting a child with social phobias.
Relaxation exercises can help your child learn to cope with and control the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Encourage your child to sit up straight and inhale slowly through his nose for a count of 4.
Hold the breath for two counts, then exhale slowly, counting from 1 to 6. Repeat to ease anxiety.
Yoga and meditation may also be helpful for kids dealing with anxiety. To find out more about the benefits and techniques used in meditation, click here.
Don’t know where to start? Try reading the book The DEAL for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids by Dr. Peter Dingle.
This easy to read book explores how our children’s Diet, Environment, Attitude and Lifestyle (DEAL) affects their health issues.
- Antidepressant No More Effective Than a Placebo According to New Research
- ADHD Medication Causing Psychosis in Children
Anxiety Disorders Drug Treatment Guidelines, WA Psychotropic Drugs Committee, August 2008.