Notes about Children and Anxiety by Resolve Counselor Debra Ferro, MFT

Anxiety disorders are the most frequently diagnosed disorders in children and adolescents. Estimates assert that 10-20% of children are born with a highly reactive temperament to anything new or unfamiliar. Does that mean that they will develop an anxiety disorder? No, there are things that may be done to assist these children with emotional regulation.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an alarm system, it may be viewed as all of the things that cause stress minus the individuals coping abilities. This will result in the individual’s anxiety level. This may be viewed as a mathematical equation.
While it is not possible to negate all stressors, it is possible to increase coping abilities and reduce the anxiety level.
Children and Anxiety
Children are over scheduled, schools are highly competitive, there is instant access to details of every disaster and 24 hour news channels provide graphic images throughout the day. Children hear adults discuss finances, safety issues and world problems. The use of technology has contributed to instant gratification and immediate access to whatever a child may want. Of particular interest to me is games that are played on the internet. If a child is losing they simply restart the game and begin again. When I am playing a game with a child during a therapy session it is not uncommon for them to ask to start over if they are losing. When I refuse to do this, because I am winning it is often met with frustration and anger. This may then be considered a stressor for them.
The list above is not an all inclusive list of stressors to children, each individual child has their own stressors to add to the list. What may be a stressor for one child, may not be for another. . While a certain amount of anxiety can be motivating in some instances, how does a parent handle the over anxious child and how does a parent even know if their child is experiencing high anxiety?
Anxiety is not always obvious in children, they will not necessarily voice their worries and fears. It may manifest itself physically; headaches, sleep disturbance, nail biting, chest pain, nausea, stomach ailments, to name a few. The list is quite long and different for each child. The child may refuse to go to school, begin to exhibit a high anger level or short fuse. They may begin to argue with their parents about everything from dinner to bedtime to homework. The worries and fears are buried down deep and are expressed through their anger. The child also may begin to avoid activities that they used to enjoy. The child who no longer wants to go to karate may actually be worried that their skills are not as good as everyone else in the class. If they do not attend karate anymore they will not have to address this worry. The adolescent who is refusing to begin their college applications may actually be worried that they will not get into college and therefore if they avoid applying they will not have to face this fear. Children may also establish rituals to maintain perceived control of their life, to reduce their fears. If the ritual is upset or altered they may become extremely upset.
Addressing High Anxiety Levels
Parents can be helpful to their children with high anxiety by modeling and helping the child to alter their cognitive distortions or the way they think and process situations. Children learn how to behave in certain situations by social modeling, they watch others. They also learn how to react in certain situations by watching how others react. If you as a parent or caregiver experience difficulty with emotional regulation, your child may also exhibit a lack of this regulation. In simpler terms if you are an “over reactor” your child may also be an “over reactor”. They have learned the importance of events by watching their parents/caregivers react.
If someone took your parking space on the street and you enter the home ranting about it for 10 minutes, the child has observed and internalized that someone taking a parking space is an awful, terrible thing. They have also learned that the way you deal with it is to rant and rave about it. You have put the loss of a parking space on the same emotional level as something much more serious. The little things, become really big things and elicit a big reaction. The next day someone takes your child’s seat in the cafeteria, how will they react? How much anxiety will it provoke? Just yesterday they learned that ranting and raving about it is the way to go. However, this did not solve the problem. While they vented about it, the feelings surrounding it have been suppressed. Adults must realize that children are watching and learning from them constantly. It is through this observation that children will form cognitions (thought processes). These cognitions may be healthy or distorted depending on the learning that has occurred.
However, if your child is already experiencing high anxiety there are techniques that may be utilized to reduce their level. If you suspect your child may have a tendency for higher anxiety these techniques will also help. These techniques will be explored in the next segment.