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Anxiety disorders in children

Anxiety in children can present as worry, fear or shyness and this can lead to children coping by avoiding certain situations.
Physical Symptoms of Anxiety include heart palpitations; sweating; tension and pains; heavy and rapid breathing; dizziness; fainting; indigestion; diarrhoea; and, stomach aches and sickness (especially in young children).Psychological signs of anxiety include mind going blank; fear that something bad is going to happen; catastrophising (mother arrives 10 minutes late and the child thinks she may have died in an accident); inability to control thoughts or to relax; feeling out of control; difficulty falling and staying asleep; and, perfectionism.

A child needs to be carefully assessed to ascertain whether they are suffering from an anxiety disorder. Symptoms of anxiety often overlap with ADHD, Autism spectrum disorders, bi-polar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and even depression.

There are different types of anxiety disorders. Separation Anxiety Disorder (developmentally inappropriate fear or anxiety regarding separation from someone to whom the child is attached. Selective Mutism (consistent failure to speak in certain situations); Specific Phobia (such as fear or anxiety about flying, heights, animals, injections, blood or even using lifts — these fears are normal in pre-school children); Social Anxiety Disorder (fear or anxiety around social situations with adults and peers — speeches, eating or drinking, having a conversation); Panic Disorder (surge of intense fear reaching a peak within minutes); Agoraphobia (fear or anxiety of using public transport, being in open or enclosed spaces, standing in queues or in crowds, being outside of the home alone) and, Generalised Anxiety Disorder (excessive anxiety lasting more than six months about work or school performance).

The parenting style of the anxious parent can include representing the world as dangerous to the child, the parent conveying to the child that they are not sure if the child is up to the task, saying that a child’s best efforts are not good enough or doing everything for the child. All these methods can lead to the child becoming anxious, however there is good news! Parents of anxious children are more compliant than with other conditions. With anxiety disorders it is important to first look at behavioural changes before moving onto pharmaceuticals as behavioural changing methods are mostly effective with anxiety disorders.

It is important to treat severe anxiety in children as this can affect their confidence, self-esteem and emotional well-being and lead to negative coping mechanism being adopted which can affect their ability to function. Anxiety should first be treated with therapy for the child and support for the family. Involving the child’s teacher is crucial. Medications can also be considered if necessary.

Parents can assist their children by sticking to a routine. They can help children identify their worries and anxiety symptoms and problem solve fears with the child. Instead of saying it is OK to not go to the party, the parent could ask what would make you feel safe, for example having a predetermined message the child could text you if they want to be collected. Place a worry box in the house and ask your child to draw or write the worry down and post it in the safe box. Parents also need to prepare children for changes such as a house move or new guests arriving for lunch or to stay. Tell them what the new situation is, when it will happen, what it will be like, so they expect the changes rather than having to endure them. Teach the child breathing techniques or counting techniques to distract them or play games with them in the car on the way to a party to alleviate anxiety. Other techniques are available on MoodCafe

Should any of the above resonate with you and you are not sure where to turn, please contact the intake social worker at JCS 021 462 5520. After an initial assessment of your situation, appropriate support services and professional interventions can be put in place.

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