Anxiety can have a large impact on how a child feels and functions, affecting their friendships, sleep, school life and general wellbeing. If you are worried that your child may have an anxiety disorder, Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg – a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford – has highlighted the steps parents can follow to address their child’s excessive worry.
There are many new experiences to be had during childhood, such as meeting different people, taking part in activities for the first time, and learning more about how the world functions. For children with anxiety, these experiences can be incredibly difficult.
Anxiety can have a large impact on how a child feels and functions, affecting their friendships, sleep, school life and general wellbeing. Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg – a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford – has highlighted the steps parents can follow to address their child’s excessive worry.
She has outlined the symptoms of anxiety to look out for, how to talk to your child about their worries, and what to do to help manage their anxious thoughts and feelings.
What signs would suggest my child is anxious?
A child can feel anxious at different times as they grow up. They may struggle to sleep in the dark and have nightmares, or fret about going to school and doing their homework.
Symptoms of anxiety that they may talk to you about or that you may see include the following:
• Their heart beating fast, butterflies in their stomach, feeling sick and sweating
• Not being able to think properly
• Trying to avoid going to certain places or doing certain things
• Lying awake at night and not being able to fall asleep
• Starting to wet the bed or have bad dreams
• Becoming more irritable, tearful or clingy
If your child has been experiencing any of these symptoms of anxiety, it is important that you take the time to sit down with them to explain why this is happening.
How to explain anxiety to your child
When talking to your child about anxiety, begin by letting them know that when we see or experience something dangerous or stressful, our body gets ready to run away from it.
To help us to run away fast, our body does the following:
• Pumps blood to important parts of the body such as our heart, lungs and other muscles so that we are prepared to move away quickly. This can cause a person’s heart to beat faster and their breathing to quicken
• As our blood moves to these parts of our body, it moves away from areas of the brain we use to think, which can cause ‘brain fog’
• A our body focuses on getting away from the danger, we stop digesting food, which can cause a person to feel sick or have butterflies
• A person may also start to sweat because of all this extra work that their body is doing
Explain to your child that anxiety causes a person to have these feelings at times when they aren’t in danger, but are instead faced with something that they are worried about, such as attending a birthday party, going to school or being in busy crowds.
Helping your child manage their anxious thoughts
When talking about anxiety to your child, listen carefully to the reasons they get anxious and remember to carefully explain to them that they are seeing dangers where they don’t exist. This can help a child to understand their body, and how and why it is functioning in a certain way. It can also help them to stay calm when the physical symptoms of anxiety arise, as they know what is happening and why.
Also, let your child know that you are confident they will be fine in the situations they are anxious about. Remind them of times when they have managed well in the past. For example, if they are worried about attending a birthday party, remind them of the last party they went to, where they told you they’d had a great time, got involved in all the games, played with the other children and left feeling happy.
Remember to give your child this evidence that they will be okay in moments of anxiousness, as they are likely to block it out as they focus on their worry instead. Another example is if they are worried that no-one will play with them at school, remind them of the previous day when they played with their classmates, or remind them of the friends that they have in their class.
It is important that you don’t let your child avoid the situations that make them anxious. Doing so can simply reinforce and strengthen their worry, as they don’t have the opportunity to see that they can actually cope in that particular situation.
You can also help your child by providing them with access to treatment for their anxiety. Therapy programmes can give your children an opportunity to learn helpful skills, which they can use to tackle their concerns. Family therapy can also be useful, to help bring out everyone’s strengths to assist the young person.
With the right help and support from their parents and medical professionals, children can start to understand why they feel so worried and learn strategies to control this, giving them the opportunity to manage their anxiety and enjoy their childhood going forward.
Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg is a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford. Dr Van Zwanenberg provides people below the age of 18 with mental health assessments and access to treatment so that they can get the help they need to recover.