A grown-up approach to dealing with childhood anxiety

A grown-up approach to dealing with childhood anxiety
Dealing with childhood anxiety (stock image)

It’s around this time that children approaching big exams later in the year are being pressured to gear up their studies and start revising. It’s also a time when big decisions have to be made about school choices and other life-changing plans for the future of our precious offspring.

By definition, as children grow and develop they have to adapt to the multiple changes within themselves as well as in their circumstances. And they don’t come with a manual, so parenthood is a minefield of unpredictable issues and challenges. When things are going well, parenting is fulfilling and fun, and children thrive in a carefree environment. It’s true to say we’re only as happy as our unhappiest child, and parents often struggle to solve mental health problems within their family.

Their plight is familiar to me, as I see a steady stream of children and teens whose parents have run out of solutions for anxieties which often defy logic and reason.

When childhood mental health is at risk

First contact may be an email or phone call from a distraught parent detailing a litany of attempts to find solutions to their child’s distress. They describe how countless tears are shed over discussions with teachers, sessions with school counsellors, trips to the GP, referrals to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services), visits to NHS psychiatrists or to private child psychiatrists and psychologists (who cost a bomb). All these services are doing a sterling job of scratching the surface of a sore which just festers and grows.

I’m typically seeing the ones who the system fails, including those who aren’t regarded as serious enough to have access to these overstretched resources. Within the range of healthy emotional development and severe mental health issues there is an unseen and often unheard majority who are grappling with commonplace anxieties triggered by developmental or circumstantial changes. Without support and guidance, some of these could well evolve into more serious mental health problems.

By the time they get to me, they can be traumatised by the treatment for their trauma. Most anxious children do not enjoy being the focus of attention, and many struggle to articulate their feelings. They might be angry or resistant to the prospect of being grilled by yet another well-meaning stranger. And they have little or no expectation of anything changing or getting better.

Anxiety at school

Generally, the first thing I’ll ask is how they’re getting on with their friends. Peer approval is everything to them, whether they be eight, 13 or 17. They are often socially isolated or marginalised because of the symptoms of their anxiety. It’s hard to chip in during break time banter when you feel like throwing up. And concentrating in class is not easy if you urgently need the loo and don’t want to draw attention to yourself by asking to be excused.

I advise parents to look out for signs of nausea on a Sunday night, or difficulty eating breakfast. Busy parents often miss the clues that their child is suffering from social anxiety. I suggest they encourage discussion about what’s going on outside of lessons at school. There might be a lot of seemingly trivial ‘well she said this’ and ‘then they did that’, but these are not trivial things to a child who has no one to hang out with.

Neither schools nor parents find it easy to deal with exclusion bullying, casual shoving around in the corridors or the verbal insults an anxious child is often subjected to, which are now all over social media as well as being in their faces. The best thing for parents to do is to equip their children with tools and strategies to handle their social problems themselves, and go into school only when all else has failed. The worst thing to do is to do nothing. Open channels of communication between parent and child are essential, or you simply won’t know there’s a problem until it’s escalated to the point of being unbearable.

Different school environments present different problems which highlight bigger issues: gang infighting and knife crime at one extreme in schools in some deprived areas; and self-harming and eating disorders at the other extreme, which are typical of academic high achievers. Add the wide availability of recreational drugs to the mix, across the entire social spectrum, and it becomes evident just how difficult it is for parents, schools and the health service to safeguard the children in their care.

Family troubles

If the problems are to do with conflict, dysfunction, breakdown or abuse within a family, then they become social issues, as children raised in such environments are often hidden from the view of any agencies that might be able to help them. And then they have a tendency to repeat their experiences in adulthood with their own families. Parents in these circumstances often don’t compute the damage being done to their children, and very often need help themselves.

I always take into account the family situation when working with the young. The relationship dynamic between siblings, parents and extended family is an important factor in emotional development. That sometimes means helping parents to understand how their children are influenced by their behaviour, which can be a tricky line to tread when mum and dad are doing the best they can and aren’t always aware of their own problems.

In these times of uncertainty, high expectations and multiple demands on time and energy, there is no-one-size-fits-all, easy fix for the many complex issues which afflict our children. It is inevitable that some troubled children will grow up to be anxious adults who struggle to cope with the stresses of daily life. Luckily, we are now more aware of the consequences of doing nothing to prevent this mental health epidemic.

Now more attention is being given to the mental health of the young, it’s important to keep the concerns in perspective as well as nipping problems in the bud before they get bigger. Anxious parents will often look for signs of anxiety in their children. Anxiety has become a bit of a ‘thing’, debated in social media and almost worn as a badge of honour by young online influencers. It helps to remember that anxiety is a normal human response to a perceived threat. It’s a very effective warning system that something isn’t right and needs fixing. A solution-focused approach will often stop it from escalating and prevent the symptoms from becoming a further source of anxiety.

Once anxiety has escalated to a degree that is disproportionate with its cause, there are therapeutic tools and strategies which give the young sufferer back a sense of control over their emotions. This empowers them to feel more positive about their ability to manage the uncertainty and the multiple changes that they are required to make throughout their development into adulthood.

Children who learn coping strategies to deal with their anxieties have the best opportunity to develop into high-functioning, resilient adults who aren’t afraid to take personal responsibility for the challenges they face.



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