Children need us to be supportive of their feelings, without being preached at or scolded.
By Dr Vihan Sanyal
“My child cries when she sees a new face”; “My two-year-old hates water and throws a tantrum at bath time”; “My eight-year-old daughter is shy and does not want to play with other children”; “My 11-year-old was inconsolable and was gasping for air on the morning of his exam.”
Many parents face such challenges with their children and attribute it to a part of raising children. It is, however, important to know when to seek professional help.
Anxiety is an essential part of human nature and a normal part of childhood. Every child goes through phases of anxiety in their childhood. Children often become immune to certain fears and situations that provoke anxiety as they travel from one phase of childhood to another. Children who suffer from an anxiety disorder, however, tend to avoid these situations. The intensity of fear is usually much stronger and tends to repeat itself whenever a child is put into a similar situation.
There are different types of anxiety disorders that children are diagnosed with. They have been broadly categorised into:
Each anxiety disorder is associated with specific symptoms. However, it is worth noting that there are two main symptoms that are common to all anxiety disorders and must not be ignored. If parents notice their child avoiding certain situations or people repeatedly or show signs of extreme distress whenever they are required to face certain situations and/or people, it would be wise to seek professional help. Experienced mental health professionals can successfully evaluate children and inform parents if their child has an anxiety disorder.
FIVE SIGNS OF ANXIETY IN CHILDREN:
A child tends to worry about things going wrong
Children with an anxiety disorder have a tendency to overthink. Their anxious brain is on high alert most of the time, looking out for anything that appears dangerous.
A child’s daily activities are impacted by irrational fears
Most children have irrational fears of spiders, the dark and monsters, for example. For many children, these fears are minor. When fears become severe and are a cause of tremendous anxiety or prevent children from enjoying normal childhood, they would be termed as phobias.
A child has trouble falling asleep, is haunted by nightmares or wets the bed often
Like in adults with an anxiety disorder, children also experience problems with their sleep routines. A child might find it difficult to unwind at night or fall asleep, keep waking up a number of times through the night, be troubled by nightmares and wake up screaming. Children with anxiety disorders can also have frequent Nocturnal enuresis (wetting the bed when sleeping). Anxiety is not a cause of this condition alone and many other psychological factors are involved. Any form of frequent sleep disturbances should be investigated and treated by professionals at the earliest.
A child is unable to calm down despite constant reassurance
Whenever a child bursts into tears or throws a tantrum, he is at his most vulnerable state. His little mind stops taking in new information. He becomes confused, scared and is unable to make sense of things. Our children need us to be supportive to the intensity of their feelings. They need us to understand how difficult something is for them to deal with. They don’t want to be preached at, scolded or for their feelings to be ignored and discounted. They need to be held, to be in your physical presence and for you to hear them with patience and understanding.
A child complains of physical pain (headaches, stomachaches) at specific times
You, as a responsible parent have taken them to a medical doctor and have had all investigations done to rule out any possible pathological reason for your child’s condition. If the findings are normal and the child continues to complain of pain, look for a pattern. When does the pain tend to emerge? Is it whenever they need to sit for a school test, when they are asked to perform on a stage, speak or read in front of people or when going to a specific place, like to see a dentist, meet certain friends and family members? All these can be triggers of underlying anxiety, which work as a catalyst for their physical pain and discomfort.
THINGS A PARENT CAN DO TO HELP
Be open to the idea of your child facing issues related to anxiety and fear. Such conditions are not a sign of weakness and warrant parental support.
Seek help of a mental health professional, school counsellor or a pediatrician at the earliest.
Follow the treatment process as advised by professionals.
Be mindful of your own behaviour around your children. Maintain a safe, positive atmosphere at home.
Keep encouraging and celebrating your children’s strengths and accomplishments. It does not matter how small an accomplishment it is. Make a big deal of it.
THINGS A PARENT MUST NOT DO
You must not blame yourself, your parenting style or your children for their condition.
Don’t encourage children to avoid situations that are the cause of their anxiety.
Don’t encourage children to hide or mask their true emotions, by telling them they must act “normal”.
Don’t compare them to their siblings and scold them for not being like them.
Never joke about your child’s condition with family and friends in the presence of your child.
(The writer is a psychotherapist.)