Coping with anxiety disorder in children

Published On: June 21, 2020 12:00 PM NPT By: Grishma Paneru

Grishma Paneru

Grishma Paneru

Grishma Paneru is a psycho-social counselor.

It's important for every parent to remember they are doing their best, even if it doesn't always feel like it.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problems in children and adolescents. Children and adolescents experience fear, nervousness, shyness and avoidance of places and activities that persist at times despite the helpful efforts of parents, caretakers and teachers. Anxiety likes to box us into all or nothing thinking, overgeneralizing and jumping to conclusions. Anxiety can make kids sound argumentative, illogical and angry. Children who suffer with an anxiety disorder typically have impairment in multiple domains of daily functioning.

All children, of whatever age, experience powerful emotions. Many children have fears and worries and may feel sad and hopeless from time to time, but they are especially common during early childhood and again during puberty. During the pandemic, they have been affected by physical distancing, quarantines and nationwide school closures. Children or teens who are socially anxious and who feel more comfortable at home may not want to go back to the social pressures of school and extracurricular activities.

The corona virus pandemic has challenged the way we live our lives. Particular concern has been raised about the mental wellbeing of children and adolescents in relation to the development of anxiety and depressive disorders during this time.  Many parents are having harder time dealing with COVID-19 than their children, and some of the anxiety that kids are experiencing may be inadvertently passed on by worried parents. Helping anxious parents cope with these challenging circumstances, for the sake of their own mental health as well as that of their children, is of utmost importance.

When kids are feeling anxious, it may not be clear to parents. Parents should not be looking for just one thing, instead they should be ready to handle a variety of different expressions of anxiety. An anxious child’s thinking is typically unrealistic, catastrophic and pessimistic. They may seek excessive reassurance and yet the benefit of that reassurance is fleeting. Irritability and anger can also be red flags for anxiety when a child becomes frustrated by the stress of worry or worn down from sleep deprivation. For some children, feeling “different” from other children can be an additional source of concern. Anxiety reflects on acts such as reluctance to separate from parents, physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches, moodiness and irritability, tantrums, not sleeping or waking in the night with bad dreams, not eating properly, quickly getting angry and being out of control during outbursts, constantly worrying or having negative thoughts, feeling tensed and fidgety, always crying and being clingy.

It is also important to remember that children’s responses to stressful events are unique and varied. Some children may be irritable or clingy, and some may regress, demand extra attention, or have difficulty with self-care, sleeping, and eating.

How to help?

Children or teens with anxiety disorder tend to worry excessively. The most important and impactful form of communication to your child/teen is our own behaviour. Children typically tend to be perceptive and sensitive to the behaviour of others in their surroundings. If parents and other adults in the household are acting and behaving calmly, they are sending a clear message to their child/teen that there is no need to panic or worry.

Sitting around idle without a plan for the day is likely to escalate anxiety, especially for teens already suffering from anxiety. Significant changes to daily routines or schedules are stressful for children. We should try adhering to usual routines and schedules in the household as much as possible.

Parents should be always ready to listen to child/teen’s feelings, worries, fears and questions about coronavirus. Children may receive their news about coronavirus from internet, TV, home or elsewhere. They may worry that the worst may happen to them and/or their friends and loved ones. Ask children what they know and what questions they have. Parents must be always ready to correct misinformation and address their questions in age-appropriate and reassuring way.  

Parents can help children to find positive ways to express disturbing feelings such as fear and sadness. Every child has his/her own way to express emotions. Sometimes engaging in a creative activity, such as playing, and drawing can facilitate this process. Children feel relieved if they can express and communicate their disturbing feelings in a safe and supportive environment. Parents should try to make the best of the situation and focus on the positive, like increasing family time and more opportunities for activities that foster closeness and bonding.

Research shows that exposure to news programming and/or fictional media such as video games, movies, and TV shows can cause children to experience fear and anxiety. Children and teens who spend more time with social media or who sleep with mobile devices in their rooms are at greater risk for sleep problems. It is better to limit their exposure to media that focus on     negative outcomes, particularly things that child already worry about.

Emotional and behavioural changes in children are to be expected during the pandemic, as everyone adjusts to a new sense of normal. If children show an ongoing pattern of emotional or behavioural concerns ( such as nightmares, excessive focus on anxieties, increased aggression, regressive behaviours, or self-harm) that do not resolve with supports, professional help may be needed.

These are difficult times for everyone. It's important for every parent to remember they are doing their best, even if it doesn't always feel like it. Parents shouldn't put added pressure on themselves to have all the answers. It would be great if they acknowledge that and let children know that they as parent are also figuring out how to cope. There is a wide range of measures to tackle coronavirus anxiety and protect our mental health and that of our loved ones. It is important to keep in mind that this pandemic will pass and that there is always help available.

The author is a psycho-social counselor

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