In this modern fast-paced world, it’s not uncommon for anyone of any age, and that includes children, to at times be anxious.
Hi, I’m Doctor Joe.
Probably generations ago, people were also anxious about things and it could be argued that historically times were a lot tougher than they are today. But we understood less about human emotions and less about mental health.
Now the first very important thing to consider when we’re talking about anxiety in children, and I should say that this does apply to any age group, is that people may be anxious and it might be about a particular event or certain circumstances but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have anxiety, if we define anxiety as a mental health problem. So I think that’s a very, very important consideration.
If a teenager for example is coming up for end of school exams, it’s quite normal and some people would argue sort of healthy, to have a degree of anxiety because it’s partly that nervousness that spurs you to actually study and do things. Again, if you’ve got a piano recital or a sporting event coming up and it’s of consequence and importance, then it’s quite natural and expected indeed to be a little bit anxious.
In younger children, starting school can be a cause for some anxiety. Arguments with friends, maybe being growled at by the teacher can also cause a little bit of anxiety. But I think again, it’s very important to realise that context matters enormously. The fact that there may be some symptoms of anxiety doesn’t mean that they have anxiety.
Alright, so what are some of the symptoms that children may experience? The commonest one generally is tummy pains. It may be headaches, it may be a reluctance to engage, they may not want to go to school, they might not want to go out, they might withdraw a little bit. So avoidance type behaviours in general, particularly avoiding the source of whatever might make them anxious.
The first, and the other point to make with this is none of the symptoms are necessarily specific to that. So other things, maybe a nervous cough, maybe starting a tic, nervous habits, things like this, none of which is specific, may go with some degree of anxiety.
Now first and foremost, as a parent it’s about having a chat with your child. We often are conditioned these days to think that every problem requires external help and it is fair to say that in some circumstances that may be necessary. But first and foremost if there is something going on in your child’s life that may be making him or her anxious, have a bit of a chat with them. It doesn’t have to be twenty questions or an inquisition, but you know, just have a quiet chat, pick your moment. Often it might be whilst you’re in the car, it might be over the dinner table, it might be when going to bed at night time. Ask fairly open questions, things like, “How’s things going? How’s school? How’s the teacher? How are your friends? Is there anything worrying you? Is there anything that you’re sad about?” You know, very general questions that open up opportunities for the child to talk about what might be on their mind.
Often with younger child in particular, it may be what appears to an adult to be the smallest thing that may be a worry or concern. So it’s very important to hear what they’re saying and to take it seriously in as much as acknowledging that what they’ve said matters to them. You may think it’s relatively trivial and it may well be in the grander scheme of things, but it’s important not to convey to the child that what worries them doesn’t matter. It’s about saying, “Yes, this is of concern to you,” and maybe starting to talk them through that perhaps it’s not that big a deal. That yes, perhaps they are going to play t-ball and they’re a bit worried about it, but look, the worst thing that can happen is that they lose, or they don’t hit the ball terribly well and look, you know, that’s actually okay. Everybody’s been there and done that.
So talking them through what may be of concern and then, you know, walking them through to the other side. So I think it’s important to know that as a parent that’s something that you’re able to do.
Now naturally if you have some concerns about the ongoing nature of the problem or there are some issues at school you may want to take that up with either the teacher or the school counsellor. If there are problems in the playground, again, have a chat with the school if that’s a concern.
Again, if you feel the need, and it’s certainly very reasonable to do, have a chat with your GP. Fortunately, in the vast majority of instances, and I emphasise vast majority, not all, these things can be managed fairly simply and generally within the home environment. But look, if you’re not sure yourself and you have concerns, have a chat with your GP. Generally it won’t need to go any further than that but it is possible to access counselling and/or psychological services, if that’s deemed necessary. But I do want to really reemphasise that in the vast majority of instances it won’t be.
So to sum up. To feel a bit anxious is quite normal and in fact is a part of life. To actually have ongoing anxiety is probably that taken to the next step and that’s where help may be necessary. But in most instances you as a parent are the best placed person to assist your child with what’s worrying them and to help them through it.