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How To Help Your Anxious Child - By Chris Gearing

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Watch Dr. Sylvia discuss school anxiety on CBS 11 by clicking here.

Anxiety about the new school year is a normal reaction for many children at this time of year. But what happens when your child’s anxiety becomes excessive? Keeping up with assignments, complying with teacher directives and even attending school can be difficult for some kids who are over anxious.

So, why are our children so anxious?

Anxiety is like an oversensitive alarm system. In children anxiety should be temporary and fleeting. Being temporary fearful is a normal part of handling change and stress that comes with new beginnings. Children have a great ability to internalize the comfort of their parents. However, the fear becomes an anxiety disorder when it begins to dominate the child’s thinking, emotions and behaviors. It becomes a behavioral problem when it interferes with the child’s ability to function effectively in the school setting.

The essential feature of anxiety is fear of a targeted danger and the avoidance of that perceived danger. Once the fear takes command of the mind, it builds in intensity.

The child will experience an increased heart rate, his breathing becoming shallow and quick and he may experience acute sweating.

Ironically the anxiety seems to create what the person fears the most. With children, a fear of school or of separating from home can magnify and actually produce the negative experience. Catastrophic thinking begins to dominate his mind. Anxiety is at the most basic level self-fulfilling.

One in eight children suffer from anxiety. Anxious children are at a higher risk of compromised school performance, social awkwardness and behavioral difficulties at home and in the classroom. The tragic part of childhood anxiety that the child is often unable to tell us what is bothering him. All he knows is that he sees the world as a scary place and cannot find a safe place to hide.

The most common type of anxiety at this time of year is separation anxiety:

Separation Anxiety

Normal Anxiety in the Young: Between the ages of 18 months and 3 years, separation anxiety is a normal response to separation from the mother. The child lacks an internal image of the mother and feels adrift when she is physically absent. However, by the time the child is school age, the cognitive apparatus is in place to hold the mother in permanent memory even when she is physically absent.

Returns with a Vengeance: Separation anxiety can return with a vengeance between the ages of seven and nine. The child shows an inability to separate smoothly from the primary caretaker and fails to calm down once the parent leaves. We see this anxiety at camp, on over night sleepovers and then when school begins.

Constant Worrying: The child will articulate enormous worry about something happening to the parents or a great calamity traumatizing everyone when separated. The child cannot calm and soothe himself. He cannot differentiate between realistic and unrealistic fears.

What should you do if your child is too anxious to go to school?

Things can get very serious very quickly. School refusal is most common between the ages of 5 to 6 and then again at ten and eleven. However, it can occur at various other times when there is a dramatic transition (going to middle school, high school, college). It is the ultimate expression of a child engrossed in anxiety. Physical complaints before school are common but they soon resolve if the child is allowed to remain home with the parent. Again, the child cannot tell us why he is fearful, only that school is seen as a frightening arena. There is usually a series of changes in the family that precipitates the school refusal but the child rarely sees the connection between his anxiety and the changes in his life.

Another rampant form of anxiety in kids is social anxiety:

Children often develop social anxiety especially if there has been any type of bullying in the past. He becomes hyper-vigilant with other children and fearful of embarrassment or ridicule. The child seeks to narrow his world and to withdraw from the social environment to avoid a problem.

Unfortunately, social anxiety seems to continue into adulthood and has deep roots in childhood with 15 million adults suffering from this disorder throughout the life cycle. It typically begins at age 13 and most of us suffer with it an average of ten years before we seek help.

Here's what you can do if you are concerned that your child is suffering from anxiety:

Seek to Understand: First of all, remember that your child may not be able to fully tell you why he feels fearful so be patient with him. Begin to build a mental map of your child’s life. Where does he go, whom does he like or dislike and which teacher is his favorite? Creating this map requires time and effort but it is essential if you are going to help your child overcome anxiety.

Emotionally Relating is the Ballgame: Remember that the basis of your power and influence with your child is how well you emotionally relate to your child. If you maintain an empathic, cherishing relationship, you will have an enormous ability to engage the child in exploring his anxiety.

Engage in Emotional Coaching:

1.) Engage the child in exploring his anxiety.

2.) Recognize the emotion as an avenue to conversation and problem solving. Remind him that he is bigger than the problem.

3.) Listen empathetically and validate the child’s feelings. Do not dismiss or discourage him from saying what he feels.

4.) Help your child label emotions—scared, afraid or nervous.

5.) Set limits while helping your child problem solve the anxiety. Parents often forget about this last step. Feelings are often not accurate interpretations of reality so make sure that your child is coached to face his anxiety and to continue going to school while learning how his thoughts inaccurately create the anxious feelings.

Seeking Professional Help: If parental intervention does not get the job done, find a good psychologist who can evaluate your child’s anxiety and teach him skills to calm and focus away from the anxiety and to replace negative thinking patterns and behaviors with positive ones. A great psychologist will teach you how to coach your child in the home and at school in resolving his anxiety.

Resources:

Anxiety Disorders and Phobias by Aaron T. Beck, M.D.

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, Ph.D.

The Anxiety Disorders Association of America - www.adaa.org


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