Anxiety and anxiety disorders are not an ‘adult-only’ thing - children are capable of experiencing these too, and we shouldn’t dismiss or trivialise their feelings.
Anxiety is a common feeling for many of us. It’s that uneasy feeling of nervousness, worry, dread, and fear that we experience in certain situations. You might have felt it before a job interview, while you’re in the labour room (even if you’re not the birthing parent!) and probably on your child’s first day of school. The occasional anxious feeling isn’t exactly a bad thing – in fact, it’s perfectly normal and beneficial to a certain extent. Healthy levels of anxiety function as a warning signal during dangerous situations, prompting us to react or flee to protect ourselves.
However, some people may experience overwhelming levels of anxiety to the point where it interferes with their daily life and relationship with others. In this case, professional help is highly recommended as intense and prolonged feelings of distress aren’t great for anyone and may be attributed to an anxiety disorder. And we’re not just talking adults – anxiety disorders may also develop in children.
Anxiety disorder is not age-specific
One of the many misconceptions about anxiety disorders is that it only happens to adults. After all, it’s easy to think that children have smaller things to worry about when compared to us grown-ups.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. The Singapore Association for Mental Health reported that anxiety disorder is the most common psychological disorder in children and adolescents. In fact, a national study recently found that one in three youth internalises feelings of sadness, anxiety, and loneliness – and those aged between 14-16 suffer severe mental health symptoms. If left untreated during childhood, anxiety disorders may continue to affect – and potentially worsen – an individual in their adolescence and adulthood. All of which make scary reading for parents.
So, what are anxiety disorders, and how do we spot them in our kids?
Before going into details about the symptoms, we need to understand what anxiety disorders are. Singapore Health Services describes it as a mental health condition that occurs when an individual has “excessive and persistent fears and worries about things or situations that do not pose a real danger”. This is different from common feelings of anxiety as disorder symptoms last for long periods and affect a person’s ability to function.
It’s also important to remember that anxiety disorders refer to a full spectrum of conditions. According to Promises Healthcare, there are a few types of anxiety disorders, these are just some of them:
Generalised Anxiety Disorder – A long-term anxiety disorder that involves “persistent and pervasive feelings of anxiety” without obvious reasons. This may manifest in the form of headaches, sleep disruptions, and difficulty in concentrating for at least six months.
Panic Disorder – Characterised by recurring random episodes of panic attacks, this type of anxiety disorder can happen at any time – even when the person is enjoying a pleasant moment.
Separation Anxiety Disorder – Individuals with separation anxiety disorder is fearful of anxious about separation from attachment figures to a degree that is developmentally inappropriate.
Social Anxiety Disorder – Intense feelings of anxiety towards social situations, such as meeting people at a gathering, or even as simple as speaking to others. People with this disorder often feel extremely stressed as they’re afraid of being judged or rejected by people.
Specific Phobias – Marked fear towards specific objects or situations. Common ones include Claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces), Acrophobia (fear of heights), Entomophobia (fear of insects), Trypanophobia (fear of recieving an injection), and Hemophobia (fear of seeing blood). People with phobic disorders may exhibit panic-like reactions when they encounter phobias.
So how can you tell if your child is experiencing normal levels of anxiety or if they have an anxiety disorder? Symptoms that may suggest the need for professional help include:
- Extreme social withdrawal, including refusing to participate in class activities and strong reluctance to attend school.
- Experiencing panic attacks that consist of severely elevated heartbeat, chest pains, and symptoms similar to a heart attack.
- Poor sleep quality, with frequent night terrors and difficulty falling asleep.
- Terrible tantrums and clinginess towards parents or caregivers, as well as a strong reluctance to be alone.
How parents and caregivers can help children cope
When you have a child who is experiencing anxiety, the first and most important thing to do is to validate their feelings. This applies not just to children diagnosed with an anxiety disorder but also to children exhibiting healthy anxious behaviours. Promises Healthcare’s Senior Clinical Psychologist S. C. Anbarasu recommends parents and caregivers offer reassurance in a manner that is relevant to their age and maturity level.
Besides that, Anbarasu also points out that parents and caregivers are a source of stability for their children. When a child is feeling anxious about something they don’t understand, parents should avoid answering them with wild guesses or uncertain predictions. “Predicting and guessing can become a problem at times, as this may cause anxiety to escalate. If you don’t have an answer to your child’s questions, don’t feel like you’re obliged to play the all-knowing parent. Say you don’t know, but you’ll try to find out,” he advises.
One of the best things that parents and caregivers can do for their children is to create an environment where they feel comfortable expressing their feelings. This is especially helpful if there is a sibling who is diagnosed with mental health issues. Parents and caregivers will benefit from this as well, as such an environment also allows them to manage their own anxieties. Anbarasu says, “Children are capable of picking up on their parents’ emotional energy. It’s also important that you acknowledge and manage your own anxieties so as not to amplify your child’s fears.”
Anxiety in children is real, but recovery is also possible
It can be heartbreaking to see your child experiencing extreme anxiety. Thankfully, anxiety disorders can be treated, and professional help is available. According to Jane Low, a Senior Psychologist at Promises Healthcare, anxiety treatments can gradually eliminate symptoms of anxiety disorders, restore an individual’s emotional well-being, and help them resume daily life functions. At Promises Healthcare, the team of psychiatrists, counsellors, psychologists, and therapists treat anxiety in children and youth with a holistic programme that includes counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy, and medication (if necessary). You can also get in touch with the clinic to find out more about specific treatments available for anxiety disorders in young children.
You are your child’s best support
It’s only natural for children to look towards their parents and caregivers for help and support. As such, you may be the first and only person that they would talk to or display signs of anxiety with. You should never dismiss or trivialise their feelings when this occurs. Listen to your child, help them cope, and – if required – advise them to allow you to seek professional help for them.
This post is in partnership with Promises Healthcare.