'Anxiety is a normal part of life': Understanding is key to helping children manage anxiety

'Anxiety is a normal part of life': Understanding is key to helping children manage anxiety

It's normal for children to occasionally worry but anxiety in a young person can develop into a crippling daily occurrence if it is not properly managed, writes Karen Murray.

It can be an anxious time for children and young people — while some are settling well into the new school year, others are struggling to adjust. 

They may have transitioned from preschool to primary, or on to second level.

Feeling anxious or worried is a normal emotional response to a stressful situation. 

However, in some cases, anxiety can develop into a crippling daily occurrence, taking over a child’s daily thoughts and behaviour and adversely impacting their home, school and social life.

Research shows that at some point in their childhood/youth, one in five children/young people will deal with significant anxiety at some point.

Dr Jennifer Hayes, a Cork-based clinical and counselling psychologist, says today’s children have very different lives to their parents and are dealing with more complex pressures, exacerbated by social media and our ‘always switched on’ world.

“Anxiety can make your child’s world smaller and rattle their confidence to the core,” says Hayes. 

“Every child struggles with anxiety to some degree and this is normal and to be expected. 

"However, for some, their anxiety will significantly impact their quality of life, day to day life and overall well-being.”

Fight or flight

Understanding anxiety is key. Our brains are designed, through millions of years of evolution, to be on the constant look-out for danger and to respond to the threat in order to survive. 

This is known as fight or flight — a normal physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. 

However, if children remain in fight/flight mode for too long, they can become very anxious and go into ‘survival mode’, even when there is no real threat or risk, Hayes says.

“Our brains are designed to keep us away from danger and so avoidance is the hallmark of anxiety, but the problem with avoiding is that a child doesn’t get the opportunity to learn that there is no danger and they can, in fact, cope,” she explains.

“Avoidance strengthens and intensifies the anxiety response, making anxiety more frequent and stronger. 

"This slippery slope can mean that kids will start to avoid more and more things and situations as they retreat from the world around them.”

Hayes says anxiety changes what we do or don’t do and rather than being awkward or difficult by refusing to get out of the car or go to school because of anxiety, children are experiencing an intense survival response to protect them from what they perceive as danger. 

“Some children will experience incessant worrying, which is exhausting. To make matters trickier, when fight/flight is triggered, your brain turns the volume down on the sensible part of your brain responsible for logical thinking. 

"This is why, despite being so smart, your child cannot think logically about their fears when they are anxious and calm their minds. 

"And children don’t have the benefit of fully grown brains either to work through their worries.”

Back to basics

Psychotherapist and parenting expert Dr Joanna Fortune has found a marked increase in children as young as nine experiencing anxiety.

She believes that parents can make a difference by going back to basics and making small changes.

“Parents are under immense pressure with working, childcare, commuting and so on. Our children want our time and we feel they are not able to give it. 

"Our lifestyles are so frenetic, so busy that we forget to stop and breathe - and we pass this down to our children.”

Last year she published a book titled 15-Minute Parenting, which focuses on what you can do in the time you have rather than stressing about what you can’t.

Being aware and being present doesn’t mean adding to an already busy day, but focuses on finding opportunities to be together, from a cuddle before bed, a game of cards or just a chat around the dinner table — even if it’s only 15 minutes.

The method in the book is structured around 15-minute games that can be easily incorporated into an existing daily routine. 

Her techniques are designed to help common behavioural issues, including anxiety, in children of all ages.

“As parents, we impose our lifestyles on children — we have the busiest kids, often doing one or two extracurricular activities a day. 

"We need to encourage playfulness — that is one vital way to improve anxiety in our children. And we need to know when to switch off. 

"We also need to be aware of our own relationship with anxiety — and lead by positive example by taking care of ourselves. Self-care is vital.”

Social media

Nuala Falvey is a non-directive play therapist in Cork and a member of Irish Play Therapists’ Association (IPTA). 

In her role, she has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of children presenting with anxiety.

“I believe social media and screen time exposure is attributing to this increased.

“It’s not just about the child but also the parent. There is too much focus, too much distraction.

“Children are having access to information beyond their emotional capacity. 

"They may be intellectually able for this information, but not emotionally.”

'Anxiety is a normal part of life': Understanding is key to helping children manage anxiety

Relaxation techniques

The most important thing a parent can do is listen to their child and let them know that they are understood and loved, that you are on their side and that their anxiety is a normal part of life, says Hayes.

She also recommends simple steps including relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises and light physical activity. 

Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. Basic skills that teach you how to control anxious thinking are also really effective, even for children.

Given that anxiety is a normal part of life, Hayes strongly believes that rather than trying to ‘fix’ the problem, parents can learn the skills to manage it and teach these skills to our children.

“We need to understand what anxiety is, how it manifests itself and how to manage it,” she said. 

“Anxiety can get a grip very quickly but anybody can learn the skills to manage it and reduce it,” she added.

“With the right type of support, the vast majority of kids master their anxieties and come out the other side. 

"We all go through difficult patches and overcoming challenges is how you build resilience.”

Dr Jennifer Hayes is running an intensive day-long intensive course for parents and professionals on Friday, October 4, at the Radison Blu Hotel, Little Island, Cork.

Attendees will learn about childhood anxiety and will be taught the most effective, psychological strategies/skills that work for anxious children. 

To register, see: exa.mn/childanxiety

15-Minute Parenting by Dr Joanna Fortune, published by Gill Books, €14.99.

Signs to watch out for

1. Finding it difficult to concentrate

2. Always crying

3. Not sleeping, or frequently waking with bad dreams

4. Not eating properly

5. Angry or irritable outbursts

6. Always worrying or having negative thoughts

7. Excessive toilet use

8. Complaining of being unwell, particularly stomach pain

9. Clinginess

'Anxiety is a normal part of life': Understanding is key to helping children manage anxiety

'Extreme anxiety takes the joy out of life'

Jessica*, 13, was always an empathetic and sensitive child but when she was about eight years old, her parents first noticed her anxiety.

Some kids in her class were disruptive and on some occasions could be physically violent towards each other.

She started getting sick every few weeks but the doctor could find nothing physically wrong.

When the doctor asked if anything was bothering her, she replied that she was “afraid of getting hurt in class”.

Luckily, Jessica never did get physically hurt, but the fear was always there, which meant she was always on high alert.

Her mum Martina* said following a number of events — when a classmate’s sibling died and another classmate’s parent died — Jessica’s anxiety worsened and the situation escalated.

Jessica started to have panic attacks, stopped all her after-school activities and refused to go to school.

During the attacks, she would vomit and her whole body would shake. She refused to go anywhere there was a crowd and was terrified that she would faint, vomit or die.

'Anxiety is a normal part of life': Understanding is key to helping children manage anxiety

A Pink concert that was supposed to be a lovely family outing turned into a nightmare. Christmas and holidays were never easy either.

“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” Martina says. “Extreme anxiety takes the joy out of life.

"You just can’t look forward to or plan anything and it affects the whole family.”

Jessica started doing CBT sessions with clinical and counselling psychologist Dr Jennifer Hayes over a period of about eight months.

She also undertook craniosacral therapy. Martina believes the combination of both has greatly helped her daughter’s anxiety.

“She isn’t 100% but I would say she’s improved by about 70%,” says Martina.

“Jennifer explained to her about what happens to her body when she has a panic attack and she has a much better understanding of it now.

"She’s also learned that it’s OK, it’s normal to feel anxious but that the feeling will pass and running away from it will only make it worse.

“She still needs reassurance every day and often asks ‘Am I going to be OK?’ And I always tell her, ‘yes, you are going to be OK’.”

Names have been changed

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