Anxiety disorders are the second most common childhood mental illness in all children and the most common among girls (AIHW, 2020).
Anxiety includes 3 aspects:
- physiological (rapid heartbeat, stomach aches, sweating)
- cognitive (thoughts)
- behavioural (responses eg avoidance or refusal).
Anxiety is the response system all people have to alert them to danger, help them avoid it, and when necessary, take steps to escape from it. It is a healthy emotion apart from when it becomes over responsive and leads to individuals experiencing exaggerated worries about things/situations that do not pose a real threat.
Children who experience anxiety try to find ways to not experience discomfort. However, these strategies often include avoiding the situation/task/trigger which trains their brain to “learn” that avoidance feels better. This leads to more avoidance.
Anxiety is interpersonal. Children who suffer from anxiety tend to rely on their parents for avoiding that anxiety. However, for children with anxiety disorders, this pattern of response maintains and often increases their anxiety. The opposing pull between reassuring your child and wanting them to be independent often leads to inconsistent fluctuations between over protection and over demanding.
Some Helpful Tips:
Use supportive statements – this means providing your child with acceptance (acknowledging the anxiety the child is feeling) and confidence (believing in your child’s ability to tolerate the distress/difficulty/discomfort.
It is important to not focus on the behaviour of the child eg “I know you’re going to do great” but shift this to focusing on the child’s ability to “get through” it rather than how they will perform. Using a support message helps the child develop a sense that you understand their anxiety. We don’t need to work out if the “threat” is real or not we just need to validate their experience.
Consider the situations/activities/environments that trigger your child’s anxiety. Make a list of the ways you decrease the distress/discomfort.
Author: Kimberly Elter – Occupational Therapist