It is quite normal, at times when there are stressful situations present, to feel fearful. When these stressors are removed, the stressful feelings are normally removed too. Fearful and anxious behaviour is common in children, particularly when facing the unknown. Most children learn to cope with a range of fears and worries (www.kidsmatter.edu.au)
Anxiety is more than just feeling stressed, worried or fearful for a short period of time. Anxiety is when these anxious feelings don't go away – when they're ongoing and happen without any particular reason or cause. It is a serious condition that makes it hard to cope with daily life. Everyone feels anxious from time to time, but for someone experiencing anxiety, these feelings are not easily controlled (www.beyondblue.org.au).
The statistics of children experiencing anxiety are of a concern. Half of all children and adolescents aged 4 - 17 years with mental disorders have an anxiety disorder. This is equivalent to 6.9% of all children and adolescents or an estimated 278,000 children and adolescents. There was little difference between males and females (7.0% and 6.8%) (Lawrence et.al, 2015).
How does anxiety present itself?
Anxiety presents itself through feelings, thoughts and behaviours. These can include, feeling uncomfortable, freezing, lashing out/tantrums, forgetting or difficulty thinking, catastrophising, obsessive compulsive behaviours and avoidance.
As a parent or care giver we need to be aware that we may not always clearly identify when a child is feeling anxious. As an observer, we may not see some features of anxiety such as the feeling of ‘fight or flight’, flushing, shaking, increased sweating, the need to go to the toilet, butterflies in the stomach, increased heart rate, dry mouth, tunnel vision and confusion. These are all symptoms of the periphery of the body shutting down to protect the heart and brain.
Anxious presentations at school
At school, anxiety can affect socialisation and participation (Hulme & Hanley, 2017). Anxious children can be extremely shy and avoid anything that may put them in the spotlight. This can be socially isolating and push the anxious child to the edges of the groups. Performance anxiety, particularly in test situations can undermine their academic results. This can be the result of perfectionism or the lack of preparation.
We see separation anxiety mostly in younger children. Other areas anxiety presents itself in the school setting is when talking in class, during transitions (moving from one class to another), in the playground, when the teacher is away, exams, excursions, camps and going to and fro from school.
How to help children with anxiety problems
- Increase children’s helpful coping skills. Anxious feelings are fed by anxious thinking. It is important not to dismiss children’s anxious feelings, but to help children see that the situations they are worried about may not be as bad as they think.
- Teach by example. Showing children how you cope positively with feeling anxious or stressed and remaining calm and positive when they are feeling anxious can help them to feel more conﬁdent.
- Avoid taking over. Children with anxiety are usually very happy for someone else to do things for them. However, if adults take over, it stops children from learning how to cope themselves.
- Encourage children to ‘have a go’: Having a go helps to show children that they can cope. Praise or reward them for every step they manage to take. (www.kidsmatter.edu.au)
Anxious parent, anxious child
Children tend to worry about the same things as adults. They mirror what they hear and see. So be very mindful of what you say and how you act in front of your children.
Andrew Thompson , Assistant Head of Junior School – Dee Why Campus
For further information, please refer to: www.theschoolrun.com/anxiety-in-primary-school-children and www.kidsmatter.edu.au/mental-health-matters/mental-health-difficulties/anxiety
Lawrence, D., Johnson, S., Hafekost, J., Boterhoven de Haan, K., Sawyer, M., Ainley, J. & Zubrick, S. R. (2015). The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents. Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Australian Government.
Kids Matter: Anxiety. (2012-13). Retrieved March 6, 2017, from http://www.kidsmatter.edu.au/mental-health-matters/mental-health-difficulties/anxiety
Do you think you know anxiety?(2016). Retrieved March 6, 2017, from https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/anxiety
Hulme, M & Hanley, L. (2017). Primary School Teachers: Managing Anxiety Disorders at School [Topic notes]. The University of Sydney