A new school year can trigger feelings of anxiety in children of all ages. There are new classes, teachers, friends and pressures - all mixed with the physical changes that come with growing up. As a parent, you are the first responder in your child’s life when they are feeling anxious.
We asked Nicholas J. Westers, Psy. D., a Children’s Health℠ clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, to share some information and advice on how you can identify the anxiety your child may be experiencing and what you as a parent can do to help.
First of all, anxiety isn’t always bad
“Anxiety is a normal part of healthy development and can be helpful in some situations,” says Dr. Westers. “For example, completing homework by a deadline; providing motivation to study well for a test or perform well in sports; or getting too close to the side of a dangerous cliff. It’s not until anxiety begins to negatively impact everyday mood and behaviors, persists over time, results in avoidance behavior and is not based in reality or facts that it becomes an anxiety disorder.”
Sources of anxiety
During the school year, a number of everyday occurrences can trigger feelings of anxiety in young people.
- The need to fit in socially
- Being bullied or witnessing bullying behavior
- Academic pressures (to make good grades or do well on a particular test)
- Athletic pressure (to make the team or to perform well on the field)
- Life changes like entering a new school
- Concerns about the future (being accepted to college, for example
There are several types of anxiety disorders
- Generalized anxiety disorder – This condition involves excessive and/or unrealistic, often unprovoked worry and stress.
- Social anxiety – This condition is associated with overwhelming self-consciousness or worry about being judged or humiliated in social situations.
- Phobia – This is an intense fear of a specific situation or object that may lead to avoidance of everyday activities.
- Separation anxiety – This is the most common anxiety condition in children and often involves fear that something will happen to family members, or to the child himself or herself, if they are apart.
- Panic disorder – In this condition, feelings of intense fear strike suddenly and regularly, without warning. Physical symptoms like irregular heartbeats, muscle tightness, shortness of breath and sweating often occur.
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – This type of anxiety takes the form of excessively preoccupying thoughts or repetitive actions performed to try to relieve the anxiety.
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – This condition results from a traumatic experience. Sufferers may have nightmares, flashbacks and unexplained fear.
Signs your child is experiencing significant anxiety
“All children are different, and you know your child better than anyone,” says Dr. Westers. “So you may be able to identify changes in your child’s behavior and pick up on the anxiety they may be feeling.” Dr. Westers also says that there may be some behaviors tied to anxiety that you may not recognize, including ones that are similar to those of depression. Look for these:
- Changes in mood or behavior, such as increased defiance or opposition in response to reasonable requests
- Decrease in appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
- Decreased energy
- Frequent irritability, sadness or crying
- Inability to concentrate
- Physical symptoms like nausea, muscle tension or dizziness
- Unexpected negative change in grades and/or school refusal
5 tips to help manage your child's anxiety
“Children and adolescents often base their own assumptions about anxiety and mental health on their parents’ assumptions,” says Dr. Westers. “An empathic and validating stance from you could be for them the difference between suffering alone and seeking help if they experience anxiety now or in the future.”
- Ask questions/Be supportive – Validate and acknowledge any anxiety, and ask open-ended questions that your child cannot answer simply by responding “yes” or “no.” Pay attention to your child’s feelings and listen to his or her concerns.
- Set an example – Stay calm when your child becomes anxious about a situation. Children watch parents to learn rules for dealing with adversity, communicating with difficult people, problem-solving and managing interpersonal conflict. Show your child how to behave and how to feel about themselves, even in midst of anxiety.
- Modify your expectations and be flexible with plans during stressful periods.
- Praise accomplishments and limit punishing mistakes.
- Talk to your child’s doctor if you have additional concerns or if your child’s anxiety persists and begins to negatively impact daily functioning.
Learn more about the Psychiatry and Psychology programs at Children’s Health.
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