CHILDREN AND ANXIETY
Life presents all individuals with a variety of stressors across the lifespan. Children often experience significant anxiety as they attempt to successfully negotiate the physical, emotional and intellectual demands of the maturation process. A good example of how this plays out is illustrated by a New York Times article entitled “Already Bound for College”. This appeared in the Education Life section on February 8, 2015. It described the various ways elementary schools across the country are assigning college-awareness activities, ranging from asking first graders to draw a picture to answer the question “What is college?” to taking fourth graders on a visit to a local campus for tours and information sessions. Heightened academic expectations have put the mantra of “college and career ready” on the lips of K – 12 educators across the country. Certainly there is an appropriate time for students to consider long-term educational goals. However, talking about college and career so early in life ramps up the already anxiety-laced process of achieving academic success and effective personal development that are central tasks in childhood
Anxiety is defined as apprehension, worry, uneasiness or distress. A certain amount of anxiety is a normal part of a child’s healthy development. Brief separation from parents, fears of the dark, strangers, loud noises, storms, or crossing busy streets are commonly experienced as children grow and mature. The onset of puberty brings additional stressors and feelings of self-consciousness or difficulties with peer pressure and social relationships. In contrast, unhealthy anxiety is an emotional response to perceived dangers which are unrealistic or exaggerated. Anxiety is caused not by a specific event but by our perception of events. For children and adolescents this idea may be complicated by their limited thinking skills which interfere with their ability to perceive events correctly. Children are very sensitive and can feel when things are not right at home. Therefore, instead of allowing them to interpret what is going on it is better to share age-appropriate information in a manner that insures feelings of safety and security.
In addition to maintaining open communication, teach your children problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. Children who have these skills have fewer worries and greater confidence in their ability to solve problems on their own. Walk them through the basic steps of identifying a problem with the acronym “KITE”.
K – know the problem
I – identify possible solutions
T – try the best one
E – evaluate the results
Focus on helping them become aware of their bodily reactions to feelings and the physical symptoms specific to anxiety so they can begin to recognize triggers and practice self-soothing techniques like deep breathing or counting to 10.
Whenever possible, prepare a child for a change or a difficult event. It is much easier to cope with something when there is some expectation and understanding for what is happening.
Lastly, children who are anxious may appear quiet and withdrawn or they may seem to have a short fuse that results in tantrums. While these behaviors are challenging to a parent’s patience, resist the impulse to assume they are being oppositional. Instead, validate their feelings, however difficult, and try to understand the child’s interpretation of their experience.