Anxiety is on the rise and our children are feeling it.
If asked, most of us would agree we ‘worry’ about our kids. And yet, most of those feelings would ultimately be revealed as a natural sense of parental responsibility – the common concern we have for our child’s safety and well-being. Real worry, or anxiety, is another thing altogether. It is characterized by unmanageable feelings of fear leading to behaviours that can interfere with daily functioning like eating, sleeping, working or going to school.
And, try as we might to provide our kids with a worry-free childhood, anxiety among kids is soaring. So what are our children so worried about and how can we help them be less afraid?
Where does it start?
According to anxiety specialist Dr. Paul Foxman, anxiety has three main roots: biological sensitivity, personality traits and stress overload. Some children are born with the tendency to feel physical stimuli more intensely – they may have a low pain threshold, an intolerance of tight clothing or a heightened sense of hearing, taste or smell. Often these children also experience their emotions more deeply – they may cry easily, be unable to watch graphic film scenes or read scary stories. At the same time, they can have powerful intuitive abilities and an enormous capacity for empathy.
Those who experience high levels of anxiety often share common character traits. They are: responsible, perfectionists, pleasers (compliant or want everyone to be happy) and suggestible (easily influenced by others). Plus, they avoid conflict and are uncomfortable with negative emotions, prefer structure, and have difficulty relaxing.
These are often creative kids with greater than average intelligence and a well-developed imagination, who are more vulnerable to the average stresses of everyday life. Add to this innate sensitivity the increasing level of daily stress kids face today, and you have the recipe for an anxiety epidemic that is sweeping the country.
Sources of stress
Stress has become such a well-worn word for the very reason that it captures so many of our common experiences. Stress is everywhere: in some ways we take its presence for granted, yet its origins can be complex. The four main sources of stress for children are family, school, media (fast-paced games, violent TV, frightening films) and society (urban sprawl, reduced resources/green space, pandemics, violence). At home, stress can arise from parental divorce, death, addiction, mental illness or household violence. Or it can arise from other challenging occurrences like sudden changes in economic stability, the birth of a special needs sibling, long-term care of an aging family member, relocation to a new home, etc.
At school, if children feel socially, economically or developmentally out of place, they may be ostracized or bullied. In fact, research shows that school-aged children worry most about educational performance (followed by their appearance, social acceptance, the death of a parent, their friends and global issues). What this tells us is that children who are constantly expected to perform tasks they find very difficult, or behave in ways that are simply foreign to them – like sitting still for those who are naturally boisterous – are experiencing stress daily. Because kids associate their identity so powerfully with their school performance, a child who cannot succeed in that environment feels like a failure and will become increasingly anxious.
What we can do
Watch for persistent signs of anxiety in your kids: stomachache, headache, extreme fatigue, depression, sleeplessness, irritability, muscle tension (particularly in neck/shoulders), breathing difficulties, and/or aggression. The first line of defence in reducing our child’s anxiety is to reduce our own (see sidebar). Examine the overall speed at which your household functions. Is it possible to slow down to a ‘pace of grace’, which enables everyone to relax and enjoy time as a family?
Although stress is inevitable these days, it need not control us.
Anxiety Reduction Techniques For Kids
Sleep – 8-10 hours at night & daily naps/quiet time for physical/mental renewal
Diet – YES: whole grains, fruits & veggies, lean meat, fish, legumes, water; NO: sugar, caffeine, preservatives, artificial colour/flavour; FREQUENCY: eat less more often
Exercise – sports, ride a bike, swim, hike, climb, skip, run
Screen time – set maximum at 1-2 hours/day; turn off 60 minutes before bedtime as serotonin is a light-regulated hormone and boosts energy
Relaxation techniques – Yoga, Thai Chi, deep breathing, meditation, visualization
Tools – try Guatemalan Worry Dolls http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worry_doll, relaxation CDs
Slow down – practise time management, do less
Goal setting – set reasonable standards for performance
Routine – make daily tasks consistent in their sequence, ie, brush teeth after breakfast, do homework before dinner
Talk – learn the language of feelings, share with a caring listener, get professional help