There are many metaphors that can help us with understanding childhood anxiety, such as:
- Anxiety is like walking in a scary forest without knowing what is waiting for you or where you are, and what direction you are going in.
- It is like a dark shadow that prevents your inner glow from shining around you.
- Anxiety is like a mask and soon seems to become a part of you.
While they describe the different variations of worries, all of these metaphors encompass the same underlying message: anxiety prevents you from being your wholesome, happy, healthy self.
Research describes anxiety as:
The body’s physical response to a threat or perceived threat. It causes a pounding heart, rapid breathing, butterflies in the stomach and a burst of energy as well as mental responses such as excessive fears, worries or obsessive thinking”.
There a number of types of childhood anxiety such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), separation anxiety, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress and general anxiety.
Is Childhood Anxiety Normal?
Anxiety is like a little alarm that goes off in our mind, telling us about a perceived danger so we can escape.
Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, for example, starting a new job, moving house or doing a presentation at school. But some people experience anxious feelings even for everyday occurrences and it does not seem to ever go away. The alarm in an anxious mind goes off frequently as it perceives situations to be much more dangerous and scary then what they are.
This level of anxiety can prevent the individual from doing everyday tasks, affecting their ability to concentrate, sleep and more.
For some, anxiety can feel like it has control of their life and their flight or fight response system goes into overdrive. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (2015), 6.9% of children experience unhelpful anxiety. In 2018, anxiety was listed in the top two leading burdens for boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 14.
Why do Children Experience Anxiety?
The biopsychosocial model helps us understand why your child may be experiencing anxiety. This model encompasses three factors: biological, psychological, and social.
- In the brain, we have neurotransmitters that send messages back and forth, and control the way we feel. Two important neurotransmitters are serotonin and dopamine. When these are disturbed, they can cause feelings of anxiety.
- Children’s physical health, sleep, diet, immune system and stress response are all influential factors that can determine their likelihood of experiencing anxiety.
- Genetic vulnerability is also an influential factor for the likelihood of your child experiencing anxiety. This may include family mental health history, characteristics, and hormone imbalances.
- If a child has a negative self-esteem, emotions, attitudes and beliefs, these can all be contributing factors to childhood anxiety. For example, if a child is experiencing low self-esteem, it may have an impact on their confidence. This may then link to unhelpful beliefs and attitudes. Your child may then turn to behaviours such as the “I can’t do it” attitude, asking you to do things for them.
- Exposure to trauma, grief and stressful experiences may cause your child to become hypervigilant to danger, so they start to perceive things as potentially harmful when there is no threat. As a result, your child is strengthening neurological pathways of being in ‘fight or flight mode’ rather than using the frontal cortex which provides logic, focus and draws your child back to the here and now.
- Family circumstances, how a child has received parenting, and their attachment styles to their parents, are all factors that can contribute to childhood anxiety.
- A child’s relationship with friends, teachers and peers are all hugely influential, and have an impact on a child’s wellbeing.
What are the Signs of Childhood Anxiety?
A child that is struggling with unhelpful anxiety may:
- frequently seek assurance and ask you to complete tasks for them;
- become avoidant of situations that they feel worried or scared about;
- express physical pains in their body like headaches or tummy aches;
- get upset easily and find it difficult to emotionally regulate;
- have a number or fears and worries;
- highly dislike doing things that they have not done before;
- have concerns about doing things correctly;
- adapt a negative mindset;
- be more of an observer rather than a doer;
- avoid going to sleep on their own;
- become clingy;
- avoid going to school.
A child’s physical symptoms of anxiety may cause them to experience sweating, shaking, headaches, tummy aches, increased heart rate and tight muscles.
Helping Children with Anxiety
Sometimes children need extra help to manage their worries and flourish into happy wholesome individuals. I ensure that therapy is a safe space where children are able to share their inner most vulnerable thoughts and feelings, and process them to move forward.
There are a number of successful modalities that help children manage their anxiety. Child Centred Play Therapy, Expressive Therapies, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) while encompassing a person-centred professional philosophy are all effective approaches when working with children with anxiety.
Child Centred Play Therapy – I have written an entire article on the subject of play therapy, which you can find here.
Expressive Therapies – These may include the use of creative tools such as a sand tray, play dough, kinetic sand, drawing or painting as a way for the client to explore themselves through a creative lens.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy believes that our thoughts impact our feelings which impact our behaviour. It has a big focus on being mindful of negative thoughts, challenging them, and turning them into positive thoughts.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – Acceptance and Commitment therapy incorporates acceptance and mindfulness techniques to assist children to live in the moment, rather than worrying about the unpredictable future. A key way to be able to be mindful of worries is to be able to detach and distance themselves from them.
Author: Larissa Watter, BA Counselling.
Larissa Watter is a Brisbane counsellor, passionate about working with children. She is currently furthering her studies by undertaking a Certificate in Child Centred Play Therapy.
To make an appointment with Larissa Watter try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.
- Dacey, J. S., Mack, M. D., & Fiore, L. B. (2016). Your anxious child: How parents and teachers can relieve anxiety in children. John Wiley & Sons.