Anxiety is a normal response to something stressful or dangerous and is very common in childhood. It is an adaptive process that is a critical part of normal development. Sometimes, anxiety becomes chronic or uncontrollable, and it can interfere with our daily lives. Children worry about so many things. When anxiety is in full-swing, it can be very confusing for not only the child, but also the adults who care about them, causing everyone to feel helpless. One of the most difficult parts about anxiety in children is that it can happen suddenly and without any meaningful, identifiable cause. The good news is that childhood anxiety is very treatable and kids are typically quick to respond to intervention.
So, how do you know when it’s time to get professional help for a child who is anxious?
- When the child’s anxiety interferes with daily life and family functioning
When the voice of the anxiety gets louder than the voices of the adult caregivers, it may be time to reach out for help. Children who suffer from anxiety disorders often feel exhausted and overwhelmed with simple, daily tasks. Additionally, they may begin to avoid experiences or activities that bring them joy, like going to school or soccer practice and even avoiding birthday parties and spend the nights. Sometimes the anxiety feels like it’s taking over your family life and may even impact siblings or close friends. It is important to recognize when the anxiety gets too big to manage on your own.
- When anxiety interrupts normal sleep and eating schedules
One of the first things to explore with families in treatment is how much impact the excessive worry is having on sleep schedules and eating habits. A child who sleeps or eats too little as a result of excessive worry may be unable to function productively at home or school. Alternately, sleeping or eating too much can be a concerning symptom of anxiety. Using sleep as an escape hatch, and/or food as a coping mechanism, can lead to concerning behavior patterns that are tough to break.
- When a child exhibits symptoms of panic attacks
A panic attack is an abrupt and intense surge of fear or worry resulting in accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling, chest pain, crying, etc. Panic attacks usually last only a few minutes, but their impact may be longer lasting causing extreme exhaustion and other anxiety symptoms to increase. Unfortunately, after a panic attack occurs, children may have a fear of another panic attack occurring, but this time outside of their safe space. This worry can create a multitude of new anxiety symptoms and avoidance of regular activities.
- When a child exhibits a total body system response to anxiety
Anxiety can do some crazy things to our bodies. The more common physical symptoms of anxiety are stomach upset and headaches. However, some children experience excessive GI upset including vomiting, diarrhea and constipation and others have frequent bouts with shortness of breath, dizziness and clamminess. Anxiety can give children the urge to pick at scabs, bite nails and pull out hair, eyelashes or eyebrows. It’s helpful to know some of the physical symptoms that can be linked to excessive worry and anxiety disorders.
Parents sometimes confuse anxiety symptoms with behavior problems. Young children’s anxiety is often displayed through an abrupt increase in unwanted behaviors. Sometimes parents delay seeking treatment for anxiety because they believe that identifying and “naming” the anxiety symptoms as a problem, might somehow exacerbate or dramatize the origin of these issues. In fact, it is very important to recognize when your child has reached their limit and when they need intervention. Being dismissive or minimizing symptoms of anxiety might feel like the best course of action, but doing so can cause a child to become confused and feel weak or ashamed. Children need to be given tools to “fight” the anxiety-they need to feel empowered and supported. Most importantly, they need to feel understood.
The gold-standard for the treatment of childhood anxiety disorders is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) combined with acceptance and support from the family system and a regimen of self-care. CBT is an evidence-based method that helps people overcome anxiety-related symptoms and engage in the structured use of specific, corrective behaviors. Reaching out to your child’s guidance counselor at school or seeking an assessment by a licensed therapist is a great way to determine if ongoing treatment is necessary.
Heather Myers, MS, LMFT is a Child, Adolescent & Family Therapist with Savannah Educational Consultants. For more information, please go to www.savannaheducationalconsultants.com or call 238-9552.