With the return to school earlier this month, I have been exploring anxiety through my social media, this article is a bit longer so I though it deserved a proper blog post.
Let’s start by reviewing our basics:
Fear: is triggered by a specific object or situation, as a result of education or experience. It is a normal reaction and its absence is a reason for concern with children.
Anxiety: is an uncomfortable state, not an illness. It is triggered by the negative anticipation of a situation perceived as a threat. Growing anxiety can lead to more severe psychological issues.
Anguish: often comes with several different manifestations: it is a rather intense feeling felt strongly in the body (such as sweating, a racing pulse, and a feeling of suffocating). It expresses insecurity, a threat linked to an undetermined danger. Anguish is part of everyone’s life and arise early is the development of children.
So now that we are clear, let’s focus on anxiety for today, more specifically anxiety disorder.
First of all, I want to really stress that anxiety in itself is not pathological. Rather, it is primarily a normal response to the perception of danger, which will act as a warning signal to the body. Anxiety manifests itself as a diffuse feeling of unease, distress, a vague feeling that there may be a danger to come.
What about children and anxiety ?
Anxiety is very normal at some stages of a child's development, their lives evolve so much and there’s so much to take in, its absence is more concerning than its presence. For example, until about 3 years old, the majority of children are often very anxious about separating from their parents.
Let’s just quickly review the usual signs of anxiety in children:
· Sudden change in behaviour: agitation, irritability, intense tantrums, the child is crying or appears worried. (see my IG post about anxiety triggered anger here)
· Somatic symptoms: headache, stomach ache, tension or tension in the body.
· Sleep disorders: difficulty falling asleep or sleeping well, frequent nightmares. The child refuses to go to bed or asks to sleep with in the parents’ bed.
· Excessive need for reassurance: the child has an excessive need for reassurance, asks repeatedly the same questions or can no longer let go of his/her parents.
· Avoidance behaviours: the child stops doing activities that used to bring joy, refuses to go to school or spend time with his/her friends. (see my FB post about anxiety triggered avoidance here)
· Problems concentrating: you may for example notice that your child finds it hard to focus on his/her homework or the teacher may report unusual difficulty concentrating during lessons.
So when does anxiety become a disorder?
Anxiety can be said to be pathological when it disrupts a child's development, when it poses significant problems on a daily basis, or when avoidance strategies take over. If that child is constantly anxious from an early age and it persists and begins to dominate their life, then we speak of "anxiety disorder”.
When this happens, the child has a hard time dealing with a situation and although the child may know that he or she shouldn't be anxious deep down, they cannot calm down.
Nowadays, anxiety is the most common mental health problems. In Britain only, around 300 thousand young people suffer from an anxiety disorder, that’s why it is important to recognise its manifestations as early as possible.
Experts do not really know what causes this illness. But they have noticed that several factors can contribute to its development including a combination of biological and environmental factors, stressful life events such as starting school, moving, parents’ divorce or the loss of a family member. These events can trigger the onset of an anxiety disorder, but stress itself does not cause an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders also tend to run in families, but not all children whose parents suffer from it will develop it. Neither you nor your child is at fault, and an anxiety disorder diagnosis is absolutely not a sign of weakness or poor parenting.
The five types of anxiety disorders
Anxiety can manifest itself in very different ways in different children. There are five main types of anxiety disorders in children:
· Separation anxiety: It is defined as the occurrence of excessive and inappropriate anxiety when the child has to separate from his parents (or a caregiver). It is a common issue for most children and usually develops at 6 months and lasts several years. This form is extreme and affect the child’s development but also the family life as a whole.
· Generalized anxiety: This is an overwhelming anxiety, present every day, in different areas of life (school, home, activities, etc.) and doesn’t necessarily have an apparent reason. Some children are naturally anxious, even more so if the parents are anxious themselves but generalized anxiety takes it to another level of worries about things that would normally not cause such stress for most people.
· Selective mutism : it is an extreme form of social phobia, children can appear overly shy but in reality they are so afraid that they simply can’t talk in public. They do talk at home or with their closest people, the ones they feel comfortable with, but at school, larger family gatherings or other places where they feel uncomfortable where they have this fear, it is beyond their ability to cope.
· Specific Phobias: Phobias are defined as irrational, very excessive or unfounded fear. Agoraphobia (intense fear related to places from which it would be difficult or embarrassing to escape) or social phobia (difficulty in asserting oneself in front of an audience) are two particularly debilitating types of phobias.
· Obsessive-compulsive disorders: They are characterized by the massive presence of obsessions (recurrent and obsessive thoughts) and / or compulsions (repetitive behaviours in reaction to an obsession).
When is anxiety a disorder that needs treating?
It is probably time to get professional help for your child's anxiety if:
· you feel it is not getting better or is getting worse, and efforts to tackle it yourself have not worked
· you think it's slowing down a child development or having a significant effect on their schooling or relationships
· it happens very frequently and affects their daily lives.
You can start by talking to your GP about it, you can also look into anxiety management tools and technics such as EFT, meditation, breath work and also make sure your children know you are around, aware of their struggle and remain a loving parent, support and care can already go a long way
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