Helping Your Child Deal With an Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety doesn’t just affect adults. It also affects young children, and teens as well and it is important for parents to recognize the symptoms early and find resources to help support their child’s mental health. The following is a guest post from Maria M. Black of My Soul Balm.
So welcome to this post and I hope it sheds light on anxiety in childhood to all moms and dads who need to learn about childhood anxiety disorders and bettering and supporting children’s mental health.
Let’s learn from Maria about this very important topic on mental health.
And here is Maria M. Black…
As a child, I developed an anxiety disorder.
I suppose I was always nervously attached, according to my Mom. But after my father and grandfather passed away when I was six, my anxious behavior got much worse.
The problem was I didn’t know I had anxiety. We were struggling with a lot in those days. Grief sort of explained away a lot of the hallmark behaviors of anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and PTSD.
It wasn’t until I was much older than I was diagnosed with chronic anxiety (Generalized Anxiety Disorder and OCD). By that point, it was nearly debilitating.
I’m learning to control it now as an adult. But I often wish I could have had some guidance as a child.
How to Identify an Anxiety Disorder in a Child
As I mentioned, it wasn’t easy for my mom to see my behaviors as anxiety. And I couldn’t tell her because I was too young to understand. I just thought it was normal to feel that way.
And some anxiety is normal for children. It’s pretty common for kids to be worried about things at school, friendships, or scary events happening in the world.
However, a good general rule to follow is if any of the below symptoms are consistently making life difficult for your child for over six months, they may be dealing with an anxiety disorder.
Another telltale sign is if the child’s mood often changes suddenly and the resulting behavior is extreme.
The Types of Anxiety Disorders and How They are Expressed in Children
There are five main types of Anxiety Disorders. Each one has unique symptoms but all of them are based on fear.
You can check out this page from Health and Human Services to find out how each disorder presents itself in adults.
When it comes to kids, though, these disorders present themselves a little differently. It’s important to know the difference so you can get and give the most appropriate help for your child.
1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder
According to Very Well Mind, about 15-20 % of children suffer from anxiety, and female children are twice as likely to suffer from GAD, and so, it is recommended to routinely screen girls over the age of 13.
GAD is characterized by its persistent nature. The sufferer will be eternally preoccupied with worry and doubt. This worry usually has no apparent cause.
Girls are more likely to suffer this type of disorder than boys.
Children with GAD are often shy and reserved.
However, they may end up having frequent meltdowns because of the intense weight of their worry. They may also cry more frequently than other children.
2. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
OCD is a debilitating form of anxiety that can cause some pretty pronounced ritualistic behaviors (known as compulsions). Worries known as intrusive thoughts fill the sufferer’s head and they practice compulsions to alleviate their anxiety.
Though there are endless obsessions and many compulsions possible, there are some that affect children more than adults.
According to the most Nation Wide Chidlrens common obsessions of children with OCD include the following:
⦁ An extreme fear of dirt and germs
⦁ A phobia of being contaminated with their own bodily waste
Magical Thinking (i.e. believing their thoughts or actions will cause disaster in the outside world)
⦁ Hoarding things in their room or space
⦁ Counting, touching, and checking rituals
⦁ Intensive Washing rituals, especially after hugging/touching strangers and family
⦁ Constantly asking for validation or affirmation of love
3. Panic Disorder
PD is one of the most physical anxiety disorders. It can cause heart palpitations, sweating, dizziness, and extreme fear reactions.
Many people who experience the recurrent attacks of Panic Disorder feel as though they are dying. A sense of impending doom tends to follow them around.
In children, PD can be particularly disastrous. Since it is such a heavy and often frightening experience, children may become depressed. This usually looks like withdrawal, unusual quietness, and mood swings.
Nightmares and consistent fear of having another panic attack are common symptoms of PD in kids. They may not want to go to school or public spaces for fear of being triggered.
4. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD is a severe form of anxiety, usually occurring after a traumatic event. It is characterized by night terrors, flashbacks, intense mood swings, avoidant behaviors, and hyper-vigilance.
Children express PTSD in a number of ways, both emotionally and physically.
Some signs include:
⦁ Older children regressing to childlike behavior. (i.e. suddenly being afraid of the dark and/or unable to sleep in their own bed)
⦁ Intense feelings of fear that lead to reactivity and hypervigilance (always on the lookout for trouble)
⦁ Loss of concentration
⦁ Acting out in school
⦁ Insomnia and night terrors about the traumatic event
⦁ Gut problems/increased complaints of an upset stomach
⦁ Increased complaints of headaches
⦁ Hiding or constantly seeking a safe space or object
5. Social Anxiety Disorder
Social Anxiety Disorder is characterized by an intense phobia and/or aversion to social interactions.
We all go through social anxiety to a degree. However, it becomes a disorder when nervousness turns to terror.
According to Child Mind. org children struggling with social anxiety may:
⦁ Be perfectionistic (trying to avoid criticism from others by doing everything perfectly)
⦁ Be poor at receiving criticism
⦁ Have a hard time speaking to people, especially figures of authority
⦁ Have difficulty asking for their needs to be met
⦁ Have physical symptoms like sweating and shaking
⦁ Dislike large gatherings
⦁ Refuse to do common tasks for fear of “doing it wrong”
How to Help Your Child Deal with an Anxiety Disorder
If your child is exhibiting consistently anxious behaviors, don’t fret too much.
There are so many ways to support them these days. To start you off here are a few of my favorite strategies to help your child deal with an anxiety disorder.
1. Be Proactive
A lot of the really difficult parts of anxiety get worse around puberty.
That means it’s super important to help your anxious child learn to cope with their disorder before then.
Being proactive about your child’s mental health looks like:
⦁ Teaching your child emotional literacy from a young age
⦁ Getting your child early intervention if they exhibit consistent signs of a disorder.
If you’re not sure, you can use this symptom checker from Childmind.org and consult a mental health professional for guidance.
⦁ Educating yourself on Trauma-Informed Parenting if your child has been through trauma.⦁
You can find our guide on Trauma-Informed Parenting here.
2. Educate Yourself on Symptoms, Medications, Care Options and Treatments
Knowledge is power. The more you know about your child’s disorder, the better you can help them fight it.
Some ways you can educate yourself:
⦁ Go online and find all the information you can about Anxiety Disorders.
⦁ Ask your mental health professional and pediatrician these 5 important questions.
⦁ Thoroughly research treatments and medications prescribed by a psychiatrist. It’s vital to know what kind of interactions and/or side effects may occur for your child before they take their first dose of medicine.
⦁ Know the difference between a therapist, a psychiatrist, and a clinical psychologist. All three play different roles in your child’s care. Make sure they all communicate with you, each other, and your child’s doctor.
⦁ Read this amazing article by a mental health professional and mother of a child with a severe mental illness. She has so much good advice from other parents.
3. Involve Your Child In Their Own Treatment
No matter how young they are, kids are so perceptive. They know when things aren’t right so it’s no use keeping them in the dark about their conditions.
Making your child a partner in their own care will empower them.
Bonus, it will build connection and trust, which is a big help in getting them to comply with treatment.
Ways to involve your child in their own treatment:
⦁ Be open (at an age-appropriate level) with your child about their condition. Explain what it means for their life and let them know it doesn’t make them bad, crazy, or weird.
⦁ Take your child’s opinion of a therapist or treatment into account. Forcing them into a treatment they hate could do more harm than good.
⦁ Normalize talking about their condition with the rest of the family. Whispering and keeping secrets about diagnoses from your relatives can make a child feel ashamed.
The most important thing to remember is that an anxious kid may always be that way to some extent.
No matter how much treatment and support they receive.
And that’s okay. In no way are you a failure because of that.
Because it’s not your job to fix them, it’s your job to help them deal with their anxiety in a healthy way.
This takes the huge weight of responsibility off you and helps your child take ownership of their own mental health.
The best we can do for our kids is to help them handle hard stuff on their own.
Because it’s going to happen. So be there for them. Hold their hand. And walk through the difficult times with them.
Let them know it’s okay not to be okay.
They will thank you later. Promise.
Maria Black is a writer and mental health advocate. She runs My Soul Balm Blog, space for the mental health community to find real, relatable advice. She lives in Florida with her husband, Bruce and two cats, Ulysses and Pickle. Follow me at @mysoulbalm on FB and https://mysoulbalm.blog
Here is Maria’s MSB’s Mission Statement:
There is absolutely no excuse for behavioral healthcare to be more traumatic than the actual disease.