Anxiety In Kids

I have been managing some anxiety in my 11 year old son recently, and thought it would be good to explore this important topic of kids and anxiety and how to best support them.

I treat many children in my clinic with anxiety and nervousness and I believe it is very important to deal with anxiety in children, otherwise you often end up with an anxious teenager and then if it remains unaddressed, the anxious adult tends to follow on. Anxiety is a growing issue that plagues many adults and has a big impact on a person’s quality of life, choices and behaviours. Thus preventing and managing anxiety in childhood will help a child in their life now but will also give them a brighter and happier future.

It is important to know that at various developmental crossroads throughout childhood, anxiety can be a common feature. But the difference in how children are managed at these juncture points can be vast. It is essential to offer appropriate support for children through the developmental stages they face through childhood. When we meet them in healthy and meaningful ways we ensure that they successfully navigate the journey from childhood to adulthood.

Of course, the first thing that needs to be highlighted is that many anxious kids are the product of anxious adults. If you or your partner has anxiety, you need to be conscious of how much you are contributing to your child’s anxiety. There are links from both a genetic perspective as well as a learned behaviour aspect. Children takes cues about the world directly from their parents, so many of kid&mumthe learned beliefs and programming comes from their parents. If you are wracked with worries and fears and tend to stress about certain things in life then you can be pretty sure your child will worry about the same stuff. The trick is to get support for yourself to better handle your anxiety and also avoid sharing your “stuff” with the kids. Be mindful to keep your own issues to yourself and try to remain calm and centred around your kids. Many adult concepts that children overhear parents talking about or watch on the news are the source of anxiety in kids. They are often too young to fully comprehend many issues and just like when we eat too much or the wrong type food we can’t digest it and we get indigestion, kids can’t digest these experiences and feelings and they tend to come out in other ways physical or emotional. Physical symptoms that manifest from underlying anxiety can include stomach pain, nausea, rashes and headaches as well as behavioural issues.

I have had instances of children in my clinic developing anxiety and fears about things after watching movies, reading books or hearing news stories. An important development crossroad occurs for children between 9-10 years, where they are aware of mortality for the first time and take the first tentative steps into adulthood and start the process of leaving childhood behind.  This can result in a range of feelings and behaviours that can appear contradictory, confusing or exasperating! One minute they are wanting to be independent and all grown up, controlling every choice they can, and the next minute they can behave like a small child being dependent, unreasonable, insecure and needy. This time can be fraught with anxiety and nervousness and children can get worried about death and dying – in either themselves or their parents or loved ones. There is a real perceptible shift in children that occurs here and I find many children present with digestive upsets, insomnia and headaches around this time, which are more psychosomatic in origin.  Being aware of the underlying transitional theme common to this age can normalise it and really help both parents and children manage it better.

While we need to protect our children from adult concepts and our own personal stuff, we also don’t want to fall into the other trap where we protect them from all experiences that are tough. It is very important to not rescue your child from experiencing negative emotions, as much as we might want

Helicopter parentsto as parents! It is hard to see our loved ones suffer, but experiencing all the highs and lows of life, both the good and the bad, builds emotional intelligence and resilience. The modern phenomenon of the hovering “helicopter parent” and “cotton wooling” our kids to protect them is creating children and young adults who are ill equipped to deal with the reality of life. We only learn through experience and we get stronger and wiser when we face trials in life, no matter how big or small.  Even though I am suggesting that we shouldn’t rescue our kids from feeling negative emotions such as sadness, pain or rejection it doesn’t mean we are abandoning them and making them suffer in isolation. We still need to give kids tonnes of love and support and the practical resources and skills to manage difficult situations and cope with the feelings that arise and flow through them. Speaking of flowing, the old adage that emotions or e-motions are just energy in motion is a good one to remember. We only get tripped up by emotions when we don’t allow them to flow and move through us. When we hold onto them and they get stuck, we tend to create more problems for ourselves. Not only do we prolong the suffering but often the negative emotions can end up in the physical body as pain or dysfunction.

It is good to let your child know that no emotion is good or bad, it just is. But what we do with our emotions is the key to a healthy response. I like to use the analogy of the emotional backpack – all the things that happen to us that we don’t process well and hold on to we put in the invisible backpack we carry around.  Over time, this bag gets heavier and heavier and we all know what an adult with a lot of “baggage” looks like!  Try to be empathic, understanding and patient with your child when they are expressing fears and worries. You need to validate their concerns on the one hand while gently reassuring them on the other. Often when supported like this, they find their way to a feeling of peace and calm or they are able to find their own solution to their problems.  This feeling and experience of autonomy and being able to work through emotions is very valuable in building self-esteem and confidence.

sandplayOther creative outlets that involve art, story or play can also be useful for kids to find a non-verbal solution to their problems. Art therapy and sand play therapy are great tools for kids to explore their inner life and emotions without needing to talk. Often the feelings that arise in kids are big and the adults around them expect the child to be able to discuss their feelings. But for many children, they can find it difficult to put their finger on what is wrong and feel ill equipped to understand or be able to verbally discuss things. Through sand play, they can choose from many different symbols by way of figurines to represent the emotions and situations they are struggling with. Adding them to the sand tray and interacting with them tells a valuable story and brings things from the inside out into the light and allows them to be processed more effectively. Kids can easily learn simple breathing and mindfulness strategies that they can use to help manage anxiety and calm down. There are a range of different apps and audios that you can easily download that give specific exercises and creative visualisations for kids with anxiety.

While it is advisable to work mostly with practical and creative tools for kids with anxiety, there may be a place for dietary change and nutritional or herbal supplements. Ensuring a healthy, whole food diet is important to stabilise blood sugar which can aggravate anxiety. Likewise, correcting deficiencies in key nutrients such as magnesium, calcium, B vitamins and zinc is also essential to improve anxiety.  In some cases, we also want to assess children for underlying issues that are causing or aggravating anxiety such as conditions like pyrrole disorders or methylation issues. Herbal medicines and flower essences can also be prescribed in individual cases to help calm children with more moderate or severe anxiety.

Anxiety in children is a problem that is increasing in tandem with the growing rates of anxiety in the adult population. Our lives have become too busy and overloaded and kids are often over scheduled and easily stressed. It is important to create a dynamic at home that offers a haven of peace and calm for our children (and us!) and encourage plenty of time in nature and to explore activities that allow kids to slow down and relax and take time to smell the roses!

If your child is suffering from anxiety, fears or phobias, please bring them in for an assessment so we can give you and them some much needed support. I also have a range of good therapists I refer to for art or sand play therapy when appropriate.