Does my child have anxiety?

Children’s behaviours can be hard to interpret.  Parents are well aware that their children travel through lots of different ‘phases’ where what they do is quite eccentric!

Kids can insist on having their food on only one part of the plate, on taking the same grubby soft toy with them everywhere (including the bath), or asking Mum to search thoroughly through the cupboards and under the bed for monsters – every night.  Sometimes children staunchly refuse to do the simplest things such as saying hello to the next-door neighbour or leaving Mum at their dance class.  So – how do we know if we should ignore funny behaviours, or if we should do something because they are a part of something more worrying?

The key things to look out for are a) how long is the behaviour lasting, and b) how much does it affect the child’s or the family’s functioning?  If a family has to do “everything” to plan for one of its children never to have to enter a shopping mall, this shouldn’t be considered part of normal development.  Anxiety can take many different forms.  Separation anxiety is a common one in pre-schoolers and kids in primary school.  Children can feel unable to leave their most important people (most often Mum) and will inexplicably refuse to go into their classroom alone, go to Nanna’s house, or step away from their parent at swimming lessons.  Parents are in a horrible dilemma:  do they ignore the behaviours and hope they will pass, get strict and severe, or cuddle and console?  The best answer, is none of the above.   Leaving the child to their own way of dealing with things leaves them in the hands of 4 or 6 year-old knowledge…..and being either severe or cuddly does not give the child any skills to help them overcome their difficulty.

Children can also feel frightened by news on the television, or by striking events.  It would be normal for them to ask questions and be a bit anxious if they caught sight of a news item which was scary, but they should forget about it after a while.  If a family finds themselves always turning off the news and worriedly monitoring the content of children’s tv or movies because the child has nightmares or constant “heeby-jeebies” this is a sign that the child is affected by worry too easily and is showing that they cannot deal with it.

It’s common enough for a child to feel ‘fluttery’ before something new, but sometimes this can go further – with tummyaches, nausea or vomiting before going to new places.  This is called Somatisation – it’s when anxiety does not know where to go and so it surfaces in the body, causing these common symptoms.  This is something which becomes far too much for the child to deal with on their own, and it needs specialist help.

Most forms of anxiety respond very well to expert assistance, leaving the family relieved and the child growing in skills and experience once more.  Some types can be longer-lasting – but good management usually makes a profound difference.

Further Resources:

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

www.adaa.org

www.beyondblue.org.au/parents

www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au

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