When children worry too much

Most childhood worries are normal, but they can sometimes become overwhelming and impact a child’s ability to cope.

Most times, childhood worries are normal. Children do have a lot to worry about growing up – school, grades, homework, making the team and so on. At times, some children become unable to cope with the anxiety and those seemingly normal worries can turn in to a disorder.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), about one in eight children are affected by an anxiety disorder. The risks for children with untreated anxiety disorders are poor academic performance, interference in social development and a host of other negative consequences. Anxiety disorders in children aren’t easy for most parents to pinpoint. The symptoms can be subtle and many parents may not know what anxiety looks and feels like for children, or even themselves.

My experience through my work with Michigan State University Extension with families has been that children, especially those under age 8 will act out what they cannot say or put into words. They may be weepy, often appear irritable, throw tantrums more often and act out in the school setting. For older children and teens, the symptoms can look the same as for younger children and include sleep disruptions, feelings of low self-worth and problems concentrating. The most common symptom I have seen with children is somatic complaints, or physical reactions to emotional distress – stomachaches and headaches. To complicate matters even further, NIMH says that anxiety disorders often co-occur with depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and eating disorders.

According to Shoemaker (2009), if parents suspect that a child may be experiencing a level of worry or anxiety that isn’t normal, they can look for the following signs:

  • Phobias that turn into deep seated fears and cause extreme distress and the need for avoidance measures. This could include many things, but some common childhood phobias are of clowns and insects.
  • Social anxiety that makes children fearful of talking to and interacting with others, including adults and other children. This can make every day social interactions extremely stressful and lead to the avoidance of them at all costs.
  • Separation anxiety that makes children extremely dependent and clingy – unable to separate from their parents for even a short period of time. If left unchecked, this can lead to disruptions in attending school and somatic illnesses.

Parents have an important role, outside of getting professional help to play in alleviating their child’s anxiety and emotional distress. The most important thing they can do is spend time with their children and encourage them to talk about their feelings – help them express their fears and worries in a constructive way. Finally, parents can help their children become self-aware through the process of talking about and naming their feelings. Here’s a favorite quote that sums it up, “Teaching self-awareness gives children the ability to know their own emotions and to recognize them when they are happening, making them manageable." Sherrie Campbell, PhD says, “This is what we want as parents for our kids: A life of feeling secure from within in an unpredictable world.”

Children who suffer from anxiety disorders have a good chance of growing up happy and healthy into adulthood, but it takes parents and caregivers who can spot the symptoms and have them addressed by a mental health professional and a loving and supportive home.

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