A Monster Problem: Children and Anxiety

Guest post by Nicole from Gateway Therapies

DISCLAIMER: The following post is entirely the thoughts and opinion of the author. Any surveys or interviews have been conducted independently and are not linked to any other research being undertaken by the author. The responses from the survey participants have been de-identified for protection of privacy.

A Monster Problem

anxiety in childrenI was recently asked to prepare some information for my OT colleagues about working with children with anxiety. I am really interested in psychology – to the point where my first degree was one in this field, and this passion to learn more about how we think and feel has in many ways shaped my current practice.

In preparing the requested information, I consulted my usual resources – articles from experts, and information from health professionals in the field; however I thought it would also be worthwhile to hear some anecdotes and stories from real life mums and dads, with first hand experience with anxious children.

The experts say that a certain amount of ‘stress’ is normal for everyone. Do parents agree?

I informally surveyed a group of 45 parents and asked them questions about their children and their experiences with anxiety. Parents ticked which statement best fit their opinion on this matter.

Table 1: Is Anxiety normal or healthy?
anxiety in children -- is anxiety normal or healthy?

So, it seems parents and the experts agree.

It is important to teach kids it is normal to occasionally feel angry, upset, frustrated, or anxious. It is also important to teach kids to effectively deal with these emotions, and the situations that cause these emotions to surface.

What makes kids anxious? Many things it seems! The parents who replied to the survey reported the following:

Table 2: What makes your child/ren anxious (that you know of)? Tick all that apply.

anxiety in children -- what makes your children anxious?

Other responses included thunder, dogs, balloons, swimming, conflict with friends, and being disciplined. One parent wrote:

“Since experiencing a bad storm last year my 8 year old is very anxious about any bad weather event. Even rain triggers a bit of anxiety. During the bad storm we lost power and I think she is particularly concerned about the house going dark in a storm again”.

The more common triggers appear to be fear of unfamiliar situations, places and people. One could argue that these are sensible fears, as they can protect us from danger. But the next question is, when does anxiety become a problem?

“Anxiety is a normal part of children’s development. But it’s estimated that anywhere between 8-22% of children experience anxiety more intensely and more often than other children, stopping them from getting the most out of life”.
Raising Children Network, 2009.

So, anxiety can become a problem. The good news is there is a lot you can do to help. It’s about finding what works best for you and your family. I asked parents in the survey how they help their child when they are anxious.

Table 3: Which strategies do you use to help your children when anxious?
anxiety in children -- which strategies doyou use to help your children when anxious?

Debbie Hopper from Lifeskills 4 Kids shares these additional tips for helping kids to cope with stressful situations:

  1. Teach your child effective relaxation strategies e.g breathing techniques, deep pressure, and visualizations.
  2. Empathise, and show that you understand your child’s concerns.
  3. Don’t trivialize your child’s fears or make fun of them.
  4. Children learn by observing their parents. Model good coping skills.
  5. Prevent or remove sensory overload.

Relaxation techniques can definitely help too.

The things that cause anxiety in children vary over time. The way in which you respond, and the techniques you use, will also need to change over time. The strategies you use must be age-appropriate and a good-fit for your family to be effective.

If you are concerned that your child experiences anxiety beyond what you are comfortable with, or you would like some help finding the right strategies for your child – visit your GP or paediatrician for further advice.

For more information on this topic visit:

Lifeskills 4 kids

Raising Children Network

References

Hopper, D, 2010, Relaxation Skills 4 Kids: An educational resource for parents, teachers and professionals, www.lifeskills4kids.com.au

Raising Children Network, 2009

About Nicole

Nicole is a privately practicing Occupational Therapist (OT) in Brisbane, Queensland.   She is mother to 2 beautiful girls aged two and four.  More information about Nicole can be found here: www.gatewaytherapies.com.au

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Nicole is a privately practicing Occupational Therapist (OT) in Brisbane, Queensland and mother to 2 beautiful girls.

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Comments

  1. says

    Fascinating.

    I am relieved (but somewhat suspicious) that no one admits to offering food to reassure.

    And that “loved ones fighting” is clearly such a trigger – a reminder to all of us to keep it civil.

    “Preventative measures” in terms of preparing kids – this one I am not so sure on. I find, with my son, who is, at times, a bit anxiety ridden, that if we discuss things first, in preparation, that we run the risk of bringing attention to an issue that might not ever be a problem…

    Great post.

    xx

    • says

      Hi Lucy,
      Thanks for your comments. Your observation about the use of comfort food (or apparent lack of) is very interesting. I would love to see some further comment about this. I use food as a last resort distraction strategy and would probably do so if I felt it would work for anxiety provoking situations too. I also agree with your comment on preventative measures. It’s absolutely a case of choosing the most appropriate strategy for each situation.

    • says

      I’m SO glad you raised that Lucy. When I read it I’m like, well, I’ve done it but obviously I’m the only one in the world! But as I’ve been thinking about it, I think there is a difference between bribery and emotional eating…but maybe there isn’t?? Most Doctors will have jellybeans ready to give after an injection or other “scary” examination. Is that to give the kids something to look forward to so it helps them through it or is it comfort by emotional eating? Interesting questions.

      I know there are bad connotations attached to emotional eating or eating for comfort, for good reason but food IS a wonderful comfort. It’s a joy! And I don’t think it’s bad to enjoy it. Or even use it as comfort to a degree. I think it’s a problems when it becomes a crutch. I know many times I make a nice roast for my husband after a terrible week and the like. And a cold soda water always lifts my spirits. That said, I think falling into the trap of constant emotional eating is a big one but there are other equally negative ways to combat stress, isn’t there… I aim to teach my kids to recognise that destructive form of self-preservation (whatever it is and when it strikes) rather than “Never, ever use food as comfort”.

      Howver, I don’t often use food to combat stress in my children, I’m just don’t rule it out. Two of my children have special needs and have had HUGE anxieties. My other two I would categorise in the “normal” levels anxiety (storm, dark etc.).

      The strategies I’ve used are in this post (eldest daughter) http://beafunmum.com/2010/06/the-anxious-child-red-brain-green-brain/. With my other daughter, her blanket, rocking and movement works well but the NUMBER ONE BEST way to combat anxiety in ALL my children is to acknowledge it. And prevention/preparing, like you said Lucy. Such an interesting topic.

      • says

        I think there are biological reasons why providing food or drink, especially something sweet, can be a useful coping mechanism. While not uncontroversial, using sucrose for babies as a pain management tool has been in practise a very long time. I am not of the mind that “comfort eating” is necessarily bad, we eat for many reasons, one of the main ones being it’s a certain time of day! How’s that healthier than eating something we would have eaten anyway or has little impact on our daily diet, that also helps us modify or regulate our current emotions?

        I really think there is way way too much in competition with our natural appetite the way we live in society now, to demonise this very common approach and feeling towards food, that it can emotionally comfort. Surely the upsides are worth it? We have to moderate anyway, to get around the fact we have such an abundance of unnatural food and often don’t get enough exercise unless we seek it out, it seems perverse to deny getting comfort or enjoyment as part of our biology.

  2. says

    Such a useful article, lots of reassuring info ie lots of children go through this, and the practical tips are what many parents really need. Thanks for sharing this – esp during Mental Health Week.

  3. Fiona says

    I will admit to using food but not as the primary comfort. My 4yr old girl is highly attuned to the world and very sensitive and empathic. One night when she was about 2 (which she was more like most 3yr olds) she couldn’t sleep, missed her dad and nothing I could do would settle her. It was 1:30 am, so whilst the baby was sleeping I pulled Miss 2 out into the lounge and we had hot chocolate and cinnamon toast together and a nice chat and then when she was ready she went off to bed.
    However, it is always words and a cuddle. I really only use the toast and hot chocolate thing as a last resort and as a way for us to connect over a little tradition. I don’t see it as a bad thing or setting up an emotional response to food as it is not the first thing we go to.
    I have also tried progressive relaxation for her at bedtime and it was great, but now she is 4 and her sister is 2 1/2 and a handful so we do nice stories at bedtime and we talk about our good things today. IF the fears come up I address them. Her latest was the dark behind the curtains. So I strung up fairy lights across the curtains and that has solved that and I talk about the cycle of light and dark. I don’t fob it off and i don’t dumb it down, I treat it as a very important matter so that my child hopefully feels safe and reassured. It is an honour to be in that position.

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