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“But surely there’s nothing to worry about?” Anxiety in children and how to tackle it

By Erin Patten
MPsych (Educational & Developmental)
Registered Psychologist @ Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre

I have had parents bring their anxious child to see me and say “but what does a child have to be worried about?” And the kids tell me – plenty! While their parents may not necessarily see the child’s fears as something to be scared of or worry about, the fear is real nonetheless to the child and giving them effective strategies to face their fear is really important.

Anxiety is a normal emotion that we all experience at times – and sometimes this can actually serve to keep us safe in a threatening situation. Think about our ancestors: did we evolve from people who were scared of bears and wolves and ran away – or did something else to keep themselves safe – when they saw them coming, or those who saw them coming and did nothing? (I’ll give you a hint: the second group of people got eaten by the bears and wolves!) However, in some children the degree of anxiety they experience in particular situations far outweighs the threat and means they can actually miss out on important childhood experiences such as trying new activities, making friends, or going to new places.

There are several different types of anxiety that may present in children including:

  • Separation Anxiety: These children have difficulty separating from their parent/caregiver, and often worry that something bad will happen while they are apart.
  • Social Anxiety: These children worry a lot about what other people think of them. They may have difficulty mixing in social situations and subsequently find it hard to make friends.
  • Specific Phobias: These children are scared of one particular thing or situation, for example dogs, the dark, thunderstorms, spiders . . . and the list of possibilities goes on.
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: These children repeat the same behaviour over and over again, fearing that something bad will happen if they don’t do it.
  • Generalised Anxiety: These children worry about many different things, and may find it hard to try new things, seek constant reassurance, and often complain of physical symptoms such as a sore tummy or headache.

There are several things that parents can do in order to help their child with their particular fears or worries. As a parent, we all want to protect and reassure our children. However, for children with anxiety doing this too much can actually serve to increase their fears of the particular situation. If you are constantly protecting your child from the situations or things they are scared of or worried about, this only serves to affirm the message that they are not able to cope. Anxious children need to be encouraged to experience situations for themselves in order to attain the sense that, “I can do it!”

Validating your child’s fears is important, but be sure not to reassure them too much. For example, it is helpful to say, “I understand you are feeling worried about . . .” but focusing too much on the anxious behaviour only serves to reinforce it and means your child is less likely to overcome their fears.

It is important as a parent to expose your child to the things or situations that they are afraid of in order to help them reduce their fears. If you allow your child to avoid the thing they are fearful of this will reinforce the fear. Breaking fears down into more manageable steps is a helpful way to approach the anxiety. This is referred to as the ‘stepladder approach’, and this page http://raisingchildren.net.au/articles/anxiety_stepladder_approach.html
has some great examples of stepladders. It is great if you are able to decide on the different steps with your child, and doing this means that they will feel more of a sense of control over what is happening. They may need to practice each stage of the stepladder several times before they feel confident to move on to the next step. Rewards can be incorporated into this process along the way too to encourage your child. It is important to remember that rewards do not necessarily have to be ‘stuff’: one of my favourite ways of rewarding my children is by doing a special activity with them (and it’s fun for me, too!).

Allowing your child to make mistakes is something that many parents find difficult. But this can be important in terms of helping your child to work out how to solve problems on their own. Although tempting, it is better not to jump in when you can see your child struggling. It gives them time to try a different strategy rather than reinforcing to them that you don’t think they can do it.

When you are tackling your child’s anxiety, staying calm and patient can be quite a challenge at times, but it is important to maintain this as much as possible. And of course, it’s a good opportunity to model your own emotional regulation strategies to your child! If at any stage you need help or support through the process, working with a psychologist is a great way to work through your child’s (or your own!) anxieties.

Erin Patten is a Registered Psychologist at Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre. You can find out more about Erin here.

If you would like to make an appointment with Erin, please call (02) 9869 0377.

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