It’s not unusual for children to express their fears. Young kids are often afraid of the dark, afraid to be without mom and dad, or afraid to start a new school. When normal childhood fears develop into something more pronounced it may be cause for concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “7.1% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety.”
What Is Anxiety?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” Unfortunately for parents, children are often unaware of physical changes in their bodies and may have a hard time articulating them once they occur.
Jonathan H. Hoffman, PhD, ABPP, co-founder and Clinical Director of The Neuro Behavioral Institute (NBI), tells Parentology, “The definition of anxiety I prefer is that for most people it’s kind of a false alarm. It’s the engagement of your flight or fight system erroneously. So, in other words, you’re worried about something you don’t have to worry about.”
Hoffman continues, “That doesn’t mean it’s not real it just means that your system is activating in a way that’s an overaction to a certain situation. That doesn’t invalidate the personal experience, but it starts to give a way of treating it.”
When Should You Be Concerned?
All kids experience some worry and stress, but Hoffman notes stress isn’t necessarily a negative feeling, but distress is.
“Distress is the kind of stress that starts to interfere with your functioning, makes you feel bad, makes you feel overwhelmed or burnt out, or like the world is too much and you don’t know what to do.”
The signs your child may have anxiety aren’t very straightforward and detectable. Hoffman recommends parents look for changes in their child’s behavior. If they suddenly don’t want to participate in activities they used to enjoy, it may be because their anxiety is overwhelming them. Physical symptoms may also be an indicator. Children that report frequent stomach aches or headaches especially if they surround a certain event or activity, may be experiencing that “false alarm.”
How Is It Treated?
Anxiety is often difficult for parents because their instinct is to make their child feel better by removing the obstacle or the cause of their anxiety. Hoffman cautions that while avoidance may solve the problem momentarily, it will only exacerbate the situation in the long run.
The treatment for children with anxiety is usually a combination of cognitive therapy and exposure therapy.
“Mostly, the more evidence-based treatment of dealing with anxiety actually gives people practice in understanding what’s happening in their bodies and minds and helps them not to react to it because the reaction that leads to avoidance is the problem,” Hoffman says.
Cognitive therapy utilizes exercises that help kids experience their bodies, identify their feelings and affords them the tools to manage their anxiety. Treatment allows children to develop their coping skills and practice them when they feel overwhelmed.
Anxiety is difficult for both the children that suffer from it and their families. Hoffman offers hope to those dealing with it, “It’s a good time for anxiety treatment as treatments have become more refined. The assessment tools have become better, so the treatments tend to become quite effective.”