Anxiety is a growing concern among pediatricians as studies show more children are experiencing anxiety at a younger age. Childhood should be a time of innocence, happiness, and freedom, but unfortunately, the reality is that anxiety is becoming more common now. As high as 7.3% of children aged 6-16 years in India have mental health concerns. As children grow, the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and stress also grows, this has only intensified during the pandemic.
Anxiety can manifest itself in many ways, including excessive worry, fearfulness, and avoidance. If left untreated, it can lead to more severe mental health problems as children grow into adulthood.
It is essential for parents and caregivers to identify and manage anxiety in children effectively. Many factors cause anxiety in kids and some of them are:
- Genetics and Parental anxiety
- Environmental factors and stressful events
- Learning difficulties & comparison
While there were different stressors earlier, over time, new ones have come to replace them. Long working hours, smaller family units, and increased screen time are some of the major factors for the alarming trend. Unless we are aware of these reasons, we cannot counter the impact.
But how do parents identify and take steps toward helping their children cope with anxiety? Here are a few ways.
Normal Anxiety- When not to worry?
Anxiety is your body's natural response to stress. It's a feeling of fear or apprehension about what's to come. It is normal for kids to experience anxiety as they face many situations for the first time.
In fact, being anxious in certain situations is a survival instinct. It stays till they learn about it, work with it, and get used to it. For example, it’s normal for very young kids to feel anxious the first time they are apart from their parents. But soon they get used to being with a grandparent, babysitter, or teacher.
When the child is anxious, it is natural for the parent to help them and make them feel better. But parents have to be mindful enough to help children deal with anxiety by identifying and supporting them rather than simply getting them out of the uncomfortable situation, which can backfire and make the anxiety worse. It's helpful for parents to let kids know that they’re going to be okay, even if they’re scared. The key is to empathize with them but not to give in to their fears.
Red Flags of Anxiety- When should you be worried?
Being anxious is not a matter of worry till the point where the person or the child shows extreme symptoms, like if they show changes in behavior, sleep, eating, or mood.
There are two red flags to look for - Extreme distress and Avoidance.
There are different types of Anxiety disorders and they include generalized, separation, social, and specific phobias.
- Worrying a great deal about the future or bad things happening (general anxiety)
- Being very afraid when away from parents (separation anxiety)
- Being very fearful of school or places where there are a lot of people (social anxiety)
- Having extreme fear of a certain thing or situation, such as dogs, insects, or going to the doctor or dentist (phobias)
- Having sudden bouts of intense fear along with symptoms such as a pounding heart, trouble breathing, or feeling dizzy, shaky, or sweaty (panic disorder)
So how do you identify anxiety?
Look out for signs and symptoms
- If your child avoids certain situations, activities, or people.
- If your child is worried about many things, and more often than you would do, as a parent.
- If your child tends to focus only on the negative side of things.
- If your child’s fear affects them from doing certain activities.
- If your child has headaches or stomach pains (or other physical symptoms) that don't stem from other medical conditions.
- If your kid suddenly stops talking altogether.
What not to do
If your child is anxious and displaying some of the above signs, even if you mean well, there are a few things you might not want to do.
- Do not Ignore- Instead of dismissing sudden behavior changes by calling them stubborn or naughty, look for the reason underlying that is causing the distress. Ignoring their emotions and pressuring them to feel a certain way may make them hide their feelings from you in the long run. If kids hide their emotions, parents might miss recognizing the seriousness of the problem and will never know what the child is going through.
- Let them face their fears- Every parent wants their child to be safe and protect them, and in the process, we sometimes tend to jump in too quickly and shield them from every discomfort. It makes them unprepared to face situations without your intervention. Instead, let them face their fears, it is ok to be scared, but let them deal with it in their own way.
- Don't ask them leading questions- “Are you anxious about the doctor’s appointment tomorrow?” Instead, ask them open-ended questions like, “How are you feeling about meeting the doctor?” and let them explain. It helps them open up to you.
- Don’t reinforce the child’s fears- If your child is scared of the dog, do not say or imply (through body language) that “Maybe this is something that you should be afraid of.”
How to help your children- Simple ways
If your child has anxiety, you can start with these steps:
- Monitor Screen Time: Try to reduce screen time with screen-free alternatives and plenty of outdoor play. Check what your child is watching, as there is a lot of content floating around your child isn’t ready for. You can use apps with age-appropriate content like Kutuki.
- Talk to your child- Even if your schedule is fully packed, take-out time to spend with your child. Discuss simple things – like what did they eat that day and so on. Sometimes their fears might come true, so what do you do? You talk to them and make a plan. For some kids, having a plan can reduce uncertainty in a healthy, effective way.
- Help them articulate their emotions – Tell a story of how as a child, you have faced something similar and felt anger or jealousy. It helps them find new words to express themselves and also understand that it is normal to feel that way.
- Mental Preparation- Anticipate new and difficult situations for the child and prepare them to avoid anxious moments, like the first day at school, a parent going to the office for the first time, a new teacher or nanny, or the arrival of a sibling and so on.
- Support & Be Realistic - Avoiding uncomfortable situations helps only in the short term, but it could make the anxiety worse. Teach kids to tolerate the feeling and help them overcome their fears. Following them on this journey with a particular fear, and showing them how they overcame, gives them confidence for their next tryst.
- Try to keep the anticipatory period short- When we’re afraid of something, the hardest time is really before we do it. So, try to reduce this anticipatory period. Don’t bring it up till it is really necessary.
- Show them healthy ways of handling anxiety yourself- Kids are observant, use it to model how to handle stress. Let the kid hear or see you manage a difficult situation calmly, and get through it. It is a good idea to discuss the incident with your child afterward. It also makes you human and makes them comfortable to share their struggles with you.
- Change – While quitting is not an answer, some situations are best avoided. By making changes in our lifestyle, we can break out of unhealthy patterns that contribute to anxiety. Sometimes even a short vacation could help a lot!
- Play as a powerful tool- Look for age-appropriate resources to aid in your child’s emotional development. Dolls have been proven to help children manage and express their emotions. You could check out the idea of Worry dolls to help your kid cope with any stress. Give them time and space to express themselves with music or free play. Also, you could get them a pet. Pets are one of the most supportive companions that help children with anxiety.
- Therapy- Trust your judgment and seek help when you need it.
Every child is different and unique in their way. Each one has its coping mechanisms. Let your child learn in their own space and assure them of your presence, support, and encouragement. It builds trust, openness, and a feeling that they can share anything with you. This alone can help them through the most difficult times.