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Copyright Centre For Effective Living © 2016
The fluttery feelings, quivering bottom lip, wringing hands, sweaty palms and the buildup to a gut-wrenching cry or out of control meltdown. Could be over tiredness. Could be hunger. Could also be anxiety. Anxiety in children is quite common. As children develop an awareness of their world beyond the brightly coloured stories they read and TV they watch, they begin to realise that not everything has a happy ending. They begin to realise they cannot always control the endings to their real life stories. They start to speculate that the things they hear about in the news could probably come true for them. Worrying about potential dangers and feeling nervous about unpredictable outcomes are part of the process of growing up, learning how to soothe themselves, engage in positive self-talk and problem-solve.
Nevertheless, there are times when anxiety interferes with a child's ability to participate in school, in their sleep and eating routines, and causes significant disruption in their everyday life. This could be the time to speak with the school counsellor and teachers to ascertain if they too have picked up this change in your child. It may also mean seeking professional opinion and advice from your family doctor, and if needed, a Psychologist.
There is actually a range of anxiety issues a child can be experiencing. Here is a brief run-down of the more commonly presenting issues:
Separation Anxiety Disorder: Anxiety over separating from primary caregivers and loved ones where the child believes that their parent/caregiver may die or have "something bad" happen to them. At certain ages this is considered a developmental phase. Certainly during the toddler and pre-school ages it is not uncommon. If a school aged child, however, experiences significant distress over separating from caregivers to the point of school refusal, inability to let parents go to work or to get the groceries and this anxiety impacts not only on the child's functioning but the overall ability of the family to function, Separation Anxiety may be the issue.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder: This is a form of anxiety where children worry excessively about a range of everyday occurrences to the point of sleep disruption, overwhelming feelings of fear and anxiety and avoidance of places and situations related to the worry. Children may worry about making mistakes, getting in trouble at school, seeing things on the news, being late, getting sick and even dying. In general, these worries happen in clusters and do not fade away with time.
Specific Phobias: While it is not uncommon for children to have fear of the dark, dogs and thunder, specific phobias can get in the way of a child having a full and quality life. In the case of needle phobias, it can actually prevent them from receiving immunisation or treatment that could be lifesaving. Some of the more common ones we see, which act as a barrier to children growing and living freely would include fear of flying (hard to take that family holiday), fear of the dark (in older children this makes sleepovers and camps tricky), fear of vomtting (some children start to reduce their eating as a way to prevent choking and vomiting) and crippling fear of household "guests" (spiders, cockroaches and the like, which means they refuse to walk into a particular room or visit certain places).
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: This is not as common, but can appear in childhood. Early intervention leads to optimal outcomes, and so I highlight it. Typically, children have some sort of obsessive thought which leads them to believe that a catastrophe will occur if they do not perform certain rituals. This could be a fear that they will harm others (for example, contaminate others with a life threatening disease, cause a serious accident to occur) or that they themselves will come to some harm. Some obsessions do not have this catastrophic quality, and may instead lead them to feel just "not right". Children may engage in repetitive behaviours as a means to curb these thoughts. Excessive handwashing, superstitious counting, arranging of things, or particular rules for walking or doing things in a certain order are part of a repertoire of possible compulsions. When these thoughts (obsessions) and rituals (compulsions) start to take a hold of a child's life such that it overwhelms them, it could be Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
The rule of thumb is - if anxiety is taking up a lot of your child's time and emotional resources - seek help. Anxiety disorders in children are easily treated and can resolve with psychological therapy.