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How To Explain Anxiety To A Child

What Are The Signs & Symptoms Of Anxiety

Explaining Anxiety and Worries to Kids Using Worrypuffs

A parent or teacher may see signs that a child or teen is anxious. For example, a kid might cling, miss school, or cry. They might act scared or upset, or refuse to talk or do things. Kids and teens with anxiety also feel symptoms that others can’t see. It can make them feel afraid, worried, or nervous.

It can affect their body too. They might feel shaky, jittery, or short of breath. They may feel “butterflies” in their stomach, a hot face, clammy hands, dry mouth, or a racing heart.

These symptoms of anxiety are the result of the “fight or flight” response. This is the body’s normal response to danger. It triggers the release of natural chemicals in the body. These chemicals prepare us to deal with a real danger. They affect heart rate, breathing, muscles, nerves, and digestion. This response is meant to protect us from danger. But with anxiety disorders, the “fight or flight” response is overactive. It happens even when there is no real danger.

Anxiety: Too Much Of A Good Thing

Is anxiety a good thing or a bad thing? I often start off first sessions with anxious kids by asking this question. 99% of the time, kids respond that anxiety is definitely bad. Most kids enter therapy with the idea that their anxiety is a problem and means something is wrong, and they have come to a counselor to get rid of it completely.

It is pretty surprising when I tell kids that I would never want to get rid of their anxiety! Anxiety feels terrible, but it serves a really important function: it helps keep us safe. What would happen if you never felt anxiety? Maybe you would cross busy streets when the light was red because you werent worried about being hit by a car. Maybe you would agree to do dangerous things with your friends, because there was no little voice in the back of your head saying it was a bad idea.

I like to ask kids what would happen if a giant, angry bear crashed through the window of our therapy room: would we both sit here calmly and act like nothing had happened? No! That would be weird. Our anxiety would kick into high gear, give us a burst of energy, and help us run to safety. The difference between plain old anxiety and an anxiety disorder is that, for some of us, we get anxiety when the proverbial bear is not around. Kids with anxiety disorders get anxiety in situations that arent really dangerous, which gets in the way of enjoying life. They just have too much of a good thing.

What Makes Children Anxious

Children can feel anxious about different things at different ages. Many of these worries are a normal part of growing up.

From the age of around 6 months to 3 years it’s very common for young children to have . They may become clingy and cry when separated from their parents or carers. This is a normal stage in a child’s development and should stop at around age 2 to 3.

It’s also common for preschool-age children to develop specific fears or phobias. Common fears in early childhood include animals, insects, storms, heights, water, blood, and the dark. These fears usually go away gradually on their own.

There may also be other times in a child’s life when they feel anxious. For example, many children feel anxious when going to a new school or before tests and exams. Some children feel shy in social situations and may need support with this.

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Therapies For Anxiety Disorder

Cognitive behavioral therapy is often described as the gold standard therapy for anxiety disorders, CBT is a short-term therapy whose core principle is that what we think, how we feel, and how we behave are all closely connected and together strongly influence well-being. During therapy sessions, children gradually grasp that what they think and do affects how they feel. They also learn how to challenge and question the validity of negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. CBT helps kids understand that avoiding their fear makes the fear stronger while facing the fear will make the child stronger. The therapist helps the child practice techniques to help them face their worries and tolerate the associated anxiety and builds up their confidence through praise and through their accomplishments.

Through exposure to anxiety-producing situations, the child will be better able to tolerate anxiety-provoking situations and the associated worries. For CBT to be successful, the child must be willing to actively and consistently participate in the therapy and do the required exercises outside of sessions. For some children, especially young children, that can be challenging so its really important that the child and the therapist have a strong relationship.

What Is A Panic Attack

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A panic attack is the sudden start of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and includes at least four of the following symptoms:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Paresthesia
  • Derealization or depersonalization
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying

Panic Attacks do not last forever, and they go away within twenty minutes usually. The severity of them can make it seem like they go on and on, making them even scarier. Treatment options are available for these, as they are included under the anxiety umbrella. Panic attacks can also mimic other kinds of illnesses such as heart attacks or thyroid problems~if your child has experienced panic attacks before, they might understand that these arent actually going to kill them, but in the moment it might feel like they are.

Be understanding when talking to your child about anxiety and panic attacks, because they cant help feeling these things. Given the chance, they probably would rather not be anxious altogether.

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Be On The Lookout For The Physical Signs Of Anxiety

The worried feelings that come with anxiety can seem hidden to everyone but the child trapped in the turbulence. That’s why it’s especially important for grown-ups to pay close attention to a child’s behavior and to look for the telltale signs of anxiety in children.

Anna, of Brampton, England, remembers when her 7-year-old son started having trouble at school.

“He was just coming home and saying his stomach hurt. He was very sick,” Anna says. When she followed up with him to try to get to the root of his stomachache, she says, “he did tell me he was worried about school, and he told me specifically it was a teacher that he was worried about.”

A stomachache, headache or vomiting can all signal anxious feelings, especially as a child gets closer to the source of the anxiety.

“You’ll see that they’ll have a rapid heartbeat. They’ll get clammy, you know, because their heart is racing,” says Rosemarie Truglio, the head of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop. “They’ll become tearful. That’s another sign. … Anxiety is about what’s going to be happening in the future. So there’s a lot of spinning in their head, which they’re not able to articulate.”

Rachel, of Belgrade, Mont., says her 6-year-old son really doesn’t want to swim or go to their local splash park.

We heard this from so many parents: My child is terrified to do something that I know won’t hurt them, that they might actually enjoy. What do I do?

How To Explain Anxiety To Kids

Nowadays, conversations surrounding mental health, specifically anxiety, are more widespread than they have ever been. However, while these discussions are common, explaining anxiety to kids can be a bit different to navigate in comparison to a conversation with adults.

The process of how to explain anxiety to a child can be broken down into four easy steps. Keep in mind that you will want to do this in a way that is easy to understand and allows your young child to identify if and when they are experiencing anxiety. Read on to learn how to best explain anxiety to a child

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Anxiety Is A Fear Of The Future And All Its Unpredictability

“The main thing to know about anxiety is that it involves some level of perception about danger,” says Pine, and it thrives on unpredictability. The mind of an anxious child is often on the lookout for some future threat, locked in a state of exhausting vigilance.

We all have some of this hard-wired worry, because we need it. Pine says it’s one of the reasons we humans have managed to survive as long as we have. “Young children are naturally afraid of strangers. That’s an adaptive thing. They’re afraid of separation.”

Full-blown anxiety happens when these common fears get amplified as if someone turned up the volume and they last longer than they’re supposed to. Pine says separation anxiety is quite common at age 3, 4 or 5, but it can be a sign of anxiety if it strikes at age 8 or 9. According to research, 11 is the median age for the onset of all anxiety disorders.

A bundle of factors contributes to a child’s likelihood of developing anxiety. Roughly a third to half of the risk is genetic. But environmental factors also play a big part. Exposure to stress, including discord at home, poverty and neighborhood violence, can all lead to anxiety. Research has shown that women are much more likely than men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder over their lifetime and that anxiety, as common as it is, appears to be vastly underdiagnosed and undertreated.

How Do You Describe Anxiety

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The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure . Knowing the difference between normal feelings of anxiety and an anxiety disorder requiring medical attention can help a person identify and treat the condition.

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How Common Is Anxiety In Children

Anxiety and anxiety disorders are considered the most common mental health problem in childhood. Separation anxietyis common in younger children, whereas older children and teenagers tend to worry moreabout school or havesocial anxiety. While OCD can occur at any age, in children it usually appears between the ages of 6 and 12.

What Can I Do As A Parent

  • Set Clear Expectations
  • The future is uncertain, and there is little we can do to change that uncertainty. We dont know if our childs fears of failing a test are going to come true or not, and we dont know if theyre going to interact with social interactions they would rather not interact in. What we can do is set expectations that are attainable. Instead of saying Im sure youll ace this test! try saying you studied hard, and no matter what the outcome is, Im proud of you for putting effort into this. if you go to the birthday party and want to leave right away thats fine, just say hello to the birthday girl first and give her the present. Then we can go home, okay? What you are doing in this situation is expressing confidence that theyre going to be okay, they will be able to manage it, and that, as they face their fears, the anxiety level will drop over time. This gives them confidence that your expectations are realistic, and that youre not going to ask them to do something they cant handle.
  • Theres No Avoiding It
  • Let Your Child Worry
  • No ones fear has ever been stopped by saying its okay! or dont worry! Instead, validate your childs feelings while not validating the ideas behind them.
  • I dont like going to school, there are too many people there, can I stay home?
  • I can see that youre anxious, do you want to talk about it?
  • Reframing
  • Name a worry floating around in your brain right now.
  • What is the worry telling you?
  • Back to the Basics
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    When Is Anxiety A Problem For Children

    Anxiety becomes a problem for children when it starts to get in the way of their everyday life.

    If you go into any school at exam time, all the children will be anxious, but some may be so anxious that they don’t manage to get to school that morning.

    Severe anxiety like this can harm children’s mental and emotional wellbeing, affecting their self-esteem and confidence. They may become withdrawn and go to great lengths to avoid things or situations that make them feel anxious.

    What Are The Symptoms

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    • Children who experience anxiety might become more clingy than usual, cry, or miss school.
    • A common symptom is the expression of fear, where the child acts upset, scared, or they might avoid talking to people or doing certain things.
    • Other symptoms include feeling jittery or shaky, and shortness of breath.

    Anxiety is the bodys response to a fight or flight situation, where the brain perceives a danger somewhere, and then releases natural chemicals into the body. These chemicals prepare us to deal with danger, and change digestion, breathing, heart rate, nerves, and muscles. The brain thinks its doing us a favor by protecting us from harm, but with anxiety, this part of the brain is overactive and releases these fight or flight chemicals too much, even when there is no real danger.

    Each of these symptoms varies in severity for each person, and not everyone will exhibit the same symptoms as each other.

    For example, one child could feel anxiety through feelings of fear, and might get shaky and cant catch their breath, while another child might feel a feeling of invisible danger where they are on high alert, overwhelmed, and are jittery. If you suspect your child might be suffering from anxiety, be aware of what anxiety looks like in them, and then come to us and well form a plan to help.

    Recommended Reading: Is It My Heart Or Anxiety

    How Can I Help My Child

    If your child has an anxiety disorder, here are some ways you can help:

    • Find a trained therapist and take your child to all the therapy appointments.
    • Talk often with the therapist, and ask how you can best help your child.
    • Help your child face fears. Ask the therapist how you can help your child practice at home. Praise your child for efforts to cope with fears and worry.
    • Help kids talk about feelings. Listen, and let them know you understand, love, and accept them. A caring relationship with you helps your child build inner strengths.
    • Encourage your child to take small steps forward. Don’t let your child give up or avoid what they’re afraid of. Help them take small positive steps forward.
    • Be patient. It takes a while for therapy to work and for kids to feel better.

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