By Dr. Olisa Mak
Signs that your Child is Anxious
Why We Need to Address Anxiety in Children
Anxiety is often a normal part of childhood and is crucial as a protective mechanism. It protects a child as they contemplate whether or not they should jump out a second floor window. Problems arise, however; when anxieties become overpowering and hold them back, much like anxieties hold people back during adulthood.
Childhood anxiety is a sign that a child’s basic needs are not being met, that they are not feeling heard, safe, or accepted. Initially, the child displays signs of anxiety that can be identified but when unaddressed, the body compensates, repackaging the anxiety into a behaviour that is more socially acceptable. Overtime, the anxious child becomes an an anxious adult. Adult anxiety is most difficult to treat when they developed during childhood. The adult mind is extremely skilled at hiding its anxieties. Imagine putting your deepest fears and anxieties in a box and then putting that box in a larger box and putting that box in an even larger box, and so on. Each additional box that we add represents how we modify and censor our behaviours, and build barriers around ourselves, all to hide some part of ourselves that we don’t like and to fit ourselves within this range of what’s socially acceptable. We do this, all to feel safe, accepted and to belong.
When an anxious child becomes an anxious adult, the mind has had so much time to hide the anxiety that the adult often isn’t even aware of the anxiety and if they are, they don’t know where it’s coming from. As an adult, dealing with anxiety requires opening each box and bravely exploring its contents. It requires identifying and changing unique patterns of thinking, that have been engrained in our brain. Until each and every box and insecurity has been explored, anxiety will always find its way back. Adult anxiety ultimately stems from childhood anxiety and like anything else, it’s always easier to deal with something early on. Children have not had time to put boxes within boxes, their anxiety is authentic and unpackaged and much easier to deal with.
According to Statistics Canada, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) affects 3% of Canadians, affecting people’s ability to lead happy, fulfilling lives. GAD can lead to more serious mental disorders including depression as well as physical signs of stress such as muscle tension and back pain. Addressing anxiety in children leads to happier, more productive and overall healthier adults.
The difficulty with childhood anxiety is that kids don’t necessarily know that they’re anxious. They are not going to overtly tell you that they’re anxious and as a parent, it’s important to be conscientious of early signs of anxiety and to properly address the anxiety. Every summer my niece and nephew are enrolled in classes at the community centre. My nephew recently said that he doesn’t want to attend classes because the teacher will tell him things that he doesn’t want to hear. It’s important to explore what sort of things he’s scared of hearing and to help him understand that he’s not always going to hear what he wants hear. It’s even more important to model for children how to deal with situations they are uncomfortable with.
How to Deal with Childhood Anxiety
Having struggled with my own anxieties as a child, I am comforted to see a lot of online articles discussing how anxiety in children should be addressed.
Explain that everyone feels anxious and that what they are feeling is completely normal and that the feeling will pass. Guide your child in understanding their emotions, how their body reacts in various situations and how they can control their reactions and emotions. By modelling ways to deal with anxiety and providing your child with a safe space and outlet to express what they’re feeling, you’re empowering your child, and encouraging them to be in control of their feelings. Help your child be introspective and to develop self awareness. This is a skill that will help them even as adults as they encounter unexpected stresses and difficulties.
Great Articles on How to Help Anxiety in Your Child:
Building Emotional Intelligence: What to Say to Children When They Are Anxious - Posted by Hey Sigmund
Anxiety in Children: How Parents Can Help - Posted by Kathy Eugster
My Own Story
For much of my life, I’ve had to deal with anxiety, in the form of nail biting. If you were to ask me 10 years ago if I suffered from anxiety, I’d tell you no. I didn’t know I suffered from anxiety. I was just a nail biter. From years of introspection and developing a greater level of self awareness, I now know that my nail biting was a coping mechanism I developed as a way of soothing my anxiety. The moment I feel anxious, my brain automatically signals to my body to bring my fingers up to my mouth and to start biting.
Over the years, a particular childhood memory has always stood out in my mind. Around the age of 6, I asked my mom to cut my nails because they were getting too long. My mom was busy and told me she didn’t have time. Out of frustration, I told my mom that I would take care of it myself and then was born my nail biting. My nail biting habit has persisted for 23 years now and I’m slowly finding more positive ways to soothe my anxiety like exercising.