Gayle Kearney said more children were being dispensed medication from a very young age as they were finding it so hard to cope.
A play therapist and counsellor, Ms Kearney was one of the speakers at a conference for special education needs hosted by a charity, Sensation Kids, in Dublin yesterday.
“There are higher rates of childhood stress now being observed,” she said. “There seems to be less free playtime — less time for a child to be a child by getting out and de-stress through natural play.
“We find that children are going into school and finding it difficult to concentrate or co-operate when they are asked to do something.”
Ms Kearney said children who had lost connection with their emotions needed help to re-establish it and feel good about themselves again.
“In Britain, there are children under one year of age on anti-anxiety medication, and there is a fear that will happen in Ireland as well,” she said.
She said she knew some pre-school children who had been prescribed medication to help them sleep because of stress and anxiety.
“Because life has become so fast and parents have become so busy, we have to help our children to de-stress,” she said.
Ms Kearney said parents were still working when they came home in the evening — they were expected to reply to emails, take calls, and keep up to date on social media.
“Children pick up on the stress their parents are under,” said Ms Kearney. “Their parents take them to the doctor when they complain about pains and headaches. They don’t realise they are suffering from anxiety.”
She said children needed to be helped to develop coping skills and to express confidence about themselves.
“Nowadays, parents spend less time with their children because of work commitments but, when they are, they seem to do so much for their children that it stops them learning skills for themselves,” she said.
Ms Kearney said parents should get their children to clean up for themselves, do weekly chores, and help figure out issues that might arise with their friends.
“If parents do everything for their children, they are left thinking that they are not able to do anything for themselves,” she said.
Anxiety, she said, was no longer normal when it was impacting on friendships, schoolwork, and daily life.
She said parents could help their children by getting them to tune into their own inner world and recognising that they need a break.
Ms Kearney is co-founder of Wipe Our Worries Workshops — play therapy-based groups for children and young people.
“We help children turn their negative thoughts into positive ones but it is all done through games and activities,” she said.