I had the privilege of talking to some primary school parents last week about child anxiety and building life-long coping skills. What became really apparent to me was that many parents don't know if their child's worries are at a normal level or are something to, well, worry about!
An important distinction to start with is the difference between fears and worries. A fear is a feeling in response to an immediate threat, such as a dog barking in their face. All children have fears and they most of them are mild and typical. As they start to learn about the world, they become less afraid. A worry focuses on something bad happening in the future, such as "I'm going to be bitten by all dogs".
Some children worry about lots of things, some are more carefree, most are in between.
Short-term episodes of worry are expected and do little to interfere with a child's day-to-day. Normal worry and angst can be experienced in the following situations:
With the support of positive adults, children will overcome these negative situations and build evidence that "everything will be okay".
Anxiety becomes more problematic when it increases in intensity and frequency, and when it occurs spontaneously and without any obvious threat. Furthermore, if it lasts for longer than you think is appropriate or leads to avoidance behaviour such as "I don't want to go to school today" (in the absence of physical illness) then it is worth monitoring.
Anxiety as a disorder affects 1 in 7 Australian children (Young Minds Matter Survey, 2015) and separation anxiety is the most common. An anxiety disorder can only be diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist using evidence-based assessment tools that use strict diagnostic criteria. Most children will not meet the criteria for “anxiety”, rather they will experience a level of angst and worry.
what to look out for?
There are over 100 symptoms for anxiety! Sheesh! To make things simpler for you:
Younger children (pre-school to early primary school) typically experience physical symptoms: crying, being clingy, lashing out, having a meltdown, etc
Older children (middle-upper primary) start to show their angst through their thoughts and moods: "I'm no good", "Nobody likes me", "I don't want to try that in case I suck", and being withdrawn or even sad.
Some children show their distress in more subtle ways such as via headaches, stomach aches and nausea.
what you do and say matters.
Children learn fear and angst responses from the world around them, particularly from the adults in their life. If you have a child with a lot of worries, it may be worth reflecting if they are being influenced by the way you handle your own fears and distress.
To reduce reliance on adults and build skills in the areas of problem-solving and resilience, parents are encouraged to:
Allow their child to take small risks;
Let their child lose board games;
Engage in good-natured teasing;
Facilitate competition and encourage assertiveness; and
Participate in rough-and-tumble play.
There are some really easy-to-implement strategies that help to minimise anxiety and promote life-long resilience. If you're a parent who likes to read, then I can highly suggest the following high-quality resources as a great starting point.
However, if you're genuinely concerned about your child's levels of anxiety or want more tailored guidance for supporting your family, then reach out. There's nothing wrong with getting a little clarity about what you can do to support the worry in your household.