Anxiety in children and adolescents is characterized by three main features...
Worry, for example:
• general (never-ending) worries that are difficult to control – school, future, daily events, appearance, health, making mistakes, trying new things, etc.
• fears of being away from parents
• excessive concern of being judged by others or doing something embarrassing in social situations
• fears of experiencing panic-like symptoms (again)
• fears of specific situations or things - bugs, animals, needles, heights, darkness, water, getting hurt or ill, elevators, planes, etc.
Physical symptoms, including but not limited to:
• stomach aches
• panic-like symptoms
• shallow breathing
• troubles falling or staying asleep
• racing heart
Avoidance behaviours when possible, such as:
• saying ‘no’ to social activities – birthday parties, dances, play dates & sleepovers, school events
• refusing to leave parents in order to attend school or fun activities (or refusing to allow parents to run errands or do fun activities without him/her!)
• staying away from those specific situations and things that cause anxiety, such as bugs, animals, high places, darkness, needles
• avoiding trying new things or changing the daily routine
• not completing school assignments or projects
• staying home from school
• not attending or fully participating in scheduled extracurricular activities
If your child is struggling with issues similar to the ones above, a qualified mental health professional will be able to assist you in clarifying the concerns, and developing a tailored treatment plan that will lead to the best possible outcome for your family.
When Do I Seek Help?
Often, supporting your child to label the anxiety symptoms and face feared situations is enough to manage it. However, when anxiety leads to missed opportunities with peers, at school, and in extracurricular activities, it may be time to seek help. If you find yourself providing excessive reassurance in an attempt to alleviate your child’s worries, are concerned your child is not getting enough sleep, or notice that your child experiences significant distress, you may consider seeking outside support.
Won’t My Child Just “Grow Out Of It?”
Everyone experiences mild anxiety from time to time, which is actually a positive thing in small doses, and is related to enhanced performance (e.g., writing a test, competing in sports). For many children and teens who experience anxiety a little more often than their peers, they can learn to manage their anxiety over time with support from friends and family, and practice using coping skills. Tips and tricks for managing anxiety can be found at the anxietybc.com website (check out the complete home toolkit – it contains downloadable tools for parents and teens!). However, for approximately 1 in 8 children, anxiety is more persistent and interferes with daily activities. For these children, the risk of waiting to “grow out of it” can be significant. The good news is there is treatment available that has been shown to be effective for managing anxiety symptoms long-term!
What Can I Expect From Treatment?
It is important to ask your therapist for treatment that is evidence-based (i.e., supported by research). Evidence-based treatment for anxiety includes Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Anxiety has a tendency to close doors for children and teens and make their world progressively smaller (e.g., missing sleepovers, school trips, learning opportunities at school). Treatment will involve practicing to “face fears” in order to gradually open your child’s world back up to fun and developmentally important activities. Through this type of treatment, children are equipped with tools for managing their worries and the physical responses of anxiety while facing their fears. Children and parents are very involved in planning next steps in treatment, thus, your child will always know what to expect. In other words, there will be no surprises or expectations to face fears before s/he is ready! It is important as parents to be involved in treatment to learn more about anxiety and to learn strategies for supporting your child outside of the therapy office, where they most need to practice facing their fears! Timing of treatment will need to be considered, as regular practice facing fears is critical to gain momentum in treatment and to build on successes. Given the regular home practice plan, small rewards will be important – facing fears is HARD WORK! While it can be hard work, treatment will also be FUN and involve lots of games and activities that support your child in beating anxiety.