The anxious child
Our children are all individuals with their own patterns of strengths and weaknesses, each demanding different skills from us as parents. This is very true of a child who tends to get anxious easily.
Components of anxiety
Thoughts of being afraid: It may be that your child has specific fears, eg, fear of water, or he may be just generally anxious. The problem arises when he gets into the habit of seeing situations as being dangerous. While the actual threat to his wellbeing may be non-existent, from your child’s point of view the threat is real and possibly life threatening.
Feelings of fear: When your child becomes fearful, his body releases adrenaline, which can cause dizziness, tummy cramps, and headaches. This can in turn feed into his anxiety.
Reaction: Children may use avoidance tactics when faced with the situation they fear and this may become a habit.
One approach that many parents try is to place their child in the feared situation. However the child is liable to react dramatically, leading the parents to remove him once again. This in turn reinforces the child’s fear and he continues to avoid the situation.
Exposure to feared situations for the anxious child needs to be done carefully. He needs to be prepared for the situation and he needs to stay in the feared situation long enough to get used to it and begin to overcome his fear.
Tips for dealing with your child’s anxieties
Remember all children experience anxiety at times. For example little ones will go through a phase called separation anxiety during the second half of their first year where they will become very distressed and inconsolable when separated from their main caretaker — it is a developmentally normal reaction. Children can experience it again at transition points in their lives, eg, starting school. With calm and reassuring handling on the part of parents and teachers, it will not affect the child hugely and will fade as he adjusts to his new routine.
It is important not to feed into your child’s worries. For instance if he is experiencing tummy aches or headaches related to anxiety, then frequent visits to the doctor may make him more anxious, as he may begin to worry that he is sick.
Sometimes anxiety in children can be related to other stresses and tensions in their lives, and this can be particularly true if their parents are in conflict. An atmosphere of tension at home can be very anxiety provoking for a child.
Don’t dismiss your child’s fears — from your point of view your child’s worries may seem excessive, but to him they are realistic. Allow your child some space to discuss and explore his worries and then you can gradually and sensitively find opportunities to challenge his beliefs.
Children who tend to be anxious can spend a lot of their day in a tense and anxious state, so it is very important for him to be able to relax. Try to spend some relaxed time with him and encourage him to pursue activities he finds relaxing.
Regular predictable daily routines are important for all children, but particularly an anxious child. These routines can be a source of comfort and reassurance, and will provide a sense of security and wellbeing.
As your child gets older, it may help him to have an action plan prepared to help him deal with situations he finds threatening. For example, what to do when another child approaches him on his first day in secondary school.
Linked to the last point, it can help children who are worried about upcoming events or indeed ongoing fearful situations if they can act them out with you and role play other responses to see if they can find other ways of coping.
Reassurance and patience are required when dealing with the unrealistic and excessive fears of your child. Trying to persuade him that the situation poses no risks or forcing him into fearful situations without preparing him is doomed to failure.
Avoid too many comparisons — your child is unique and special. Compared to his peers he may seem more anxious and timid but remember he has strengths too. Often anxious children are quiet children who are very well behaved and eager to please. They can be very observant and sensitive to others.
Making time for all your children is important. If you are in touch with what is going on in their lives, you may be able to prevent problems from developing by nipping their fears in the bud. You will also be able to anticipate events that may be challenging for your child and prepare for them well in advance.
Most importantly, remember to praise your child whenever he attempts to face his fears and build on his success.
If you are very concerned about your child and feel that his anxiety is seriously interfering with his life, you may consider getting professional advice.
There are a number of treatments that have been found to help children who are suffering from anxiety disorders and your GP can provide information on them.
For more information visit www.RollerCoaster.ie, Ireland’s no 1 website for pregnancy and parenting.