In today’s world anxiety is becoming more and more prevalent in children. While it is a normal and necessary emotion, designed to protect us, it can inhibit as well. Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in children.
As parents, particularly in South Africa, it is hard to know what is ‘normal’ and when to intervene and seek help. Anxiety left unattended can lead to depression and be a constraint in a child’s life experience. Some of the more common anxiety disorders are separation anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, selective mutism, post-traumatic stress and generalized anxiety disorder. A professional is required to diagnose these disorders and much cooperative teamwork is needed between parents, teachers, psychologists, paediatricians and other professionals to provide support and management strategies for the child.
A common form of anxiety seen in the Pre-Primary school years is separation anxiety. This is a fear of being separated from a caregiver or something happening to a caregiver that could cause separation. Your reaction to an anxious child as a parent is very important. While parents are generally well meaning, they can hinder a child or feed into anxiety without realizing. Here are tips to follow in dealing with an anxious child;
- Be sympathetic but encourage bravery
- Remain calm and reassuring
- Teach your child to use deep breathing techniques and visualization
- Develop a secure and healthy attachment with your child, soothe but don’t smother
- Gradually expose them to their fear. For example, if they are afraid of going to school, a few days before it starts, drive to the school and just sit in the parking lot. The next time just walk to the front door, then go into the building and walk around etc. Gradually spend longer periods away from your child so that they can get used to it.
- Remind your child of situations when they have overcome their anxiety.
- Externalize the anxiety. For example, get them to draw a worry monster and name it. Ask them what the worry monster wants them to do and is afraid of. Tell them that they have their own superpowers to fight the worry monster.
- When separating from your child do not delay the goodbye as this extends the anxiety period. If you are concerned phone the school later and have someone check on them
- Act as a role model. Children will feed off and model your anxiety
When these methods do not assist it may be necessary to consult a professional about other management options such as medication or cognitive behavioural therapy.
There are many more expectations on children in the 21st century which can contribute to anxiety, but it is also important to know that anxiety can be genetic and there can be no reasoning behind it. It is activated in the primitive brain with a fight or flight response and we must try to put logic and reasoning into it so that it can be controlled.
With a solid support base, children can normalize their anxiety and live fulfilling lives, making the most of every opportunity afforded to them.
By: Jodi Armstrong, Crawford Pre-Primary La Lucia