This is the time of year that many parents are coming to my office to talk about strategies to help their children manage their stress and anxiety. Anxiety is the most common mental health concern for children and adults. In fact, percentage<>"="">topercentage<>"="">dpercentage<>"="">aypercentage<>"="">’percentage<>"="">s youth are exposed to more stress than ever before, and some children are extra sensipercentage<>"="">tpercentage<>"="">ipercentage<>"="">ve to lifes stressors.

What are children anxious about? Four year old Kim is often anxious about the dark; she tries to delay the inevitable last kiss and keep her mom or dad from going to their beds. She is a shy child who stays far away from strangers and struggles to separate from her mom when dropped off at the daycare every morning. Kim’s morning tears often lead her mother feeling guilty on her way to work. Sam is eight years old and he is a perfectionist. He finds it almost impossible to hand in an assignment or a drawing if it’s not perfect. No matter how much his dad tells him he likes his work, Sam rips the pages to shreds if he makes even one mistake. As children get older, their anxieties are more focused on social issues such as nobody liking them or wanting to be with them, or being the target of bullies.

One of the big myths about anxiety is that some people do not experience it. This is simply not true. Anxiety is experienced by every human being who is living and breathing - it is a fact of life that none of us can avoid. Nor should we - without a little anxiety we may not get out of our cozy, warm beds and rush to get ready for work, or even get our taxes done on time. Anxiety is the feeling we experience when we are not sure about what will happen next or when we can’t control the events that are about to unfold in our lives or the lives of our children. But when anxiety becomes severe it can change from those hollow feelings in our stomach to a deep fear gripping our bodies making us nervous, jumpy or even of being out of control. At these times, life as we know it comes to a halt – we can’t eat or sleep or function - it interfering with everyday life activities. At times like these, anxiety seems to take over the whole family.

Most young people don’t yet have the skills or insight to understand what is going on in their bodies when they feel anxious. They just have the terrifying feelings that go along with unchecked anxiety. For some children, anxiety is generalized, they feel very nervous and jittery around others most of the time. Some young people find themselves isolated, unable to join in with peers so they withdraw, standing alone at lunch or on the sidelines of games, saying nothing but wishing with all their hearts that they could join in and be normal.

Whether our children experience unchecked anxiety or not – all young people can benefit from learning skills to effectively manage anxiety. When our children learn to identify feelings of anxiety, and have the skills to process their feelings, then they won’t need to suppress them. They will be able to manage the personal or social situations that make them anxious or fearful.

So, what can parents do to help their children to deal with anxiety? First, we need to recognize that some anxiety is normal. Normal anxiety is reasonable, manage- able, time limited, and can even mobilize us – for example, to get organized to work on a project, study for a test, or practice for a big game. With normal anxiety, typically the anxiety is reduced after the stressful event has passed.

Problem anxiety is excessive, uncontrollable, and can lead to feeling paralyzed and not being able to move forward, thus getting in the way of day to day functioning – for example, not wanting to go to school. Symptoms may include feeling hot and/or sweaty, stomach troubles or headaches, muscle tension, racing heart, difficulty breathing, hyperventilating, or panic attacks. Since no two children are alike, we need to consider their individual symptoms and body cues. Many children do not recognize the changes in their bodies before the symptoms are quite large. If we can help our children recognize the symptoms when they are small, and understand that those symptoms will subside over time, we have a better chance of helping them develop coping strategies.

The goal of dealing with anxiety is not to re move all the anxiety, but rather to bring problem anxiety back into the normal range. We can help our children do this by various types of breathing and muscle relaxation, and of course we need to model calmness. Our children look into our eyes to see what they should do and how they should feel. Just like when they were learning to walk and had many falls along the way, we want them to get the same message; keep going – it gets better. We need to be reassuring but firm. For example, staying home from school and never doing oral presentations again won’t prepare our children for their future.

We also need to work in collaboration with our child’s school. For children who struggle with anxiety the schedules present in most classes serve to calm fear and add a high degree of predictability to what is happening next. If doing an oral presentation is what keeps your child up at night, you will likely find support from your child’s teacher in set up a mini presentation for now, with a slow progression to the whole class presentation as the year wears on. This way, adults can help children face their fears and reward brave behaviors, and create opportunities for children to see themselves as successful.

Research shows that children can learn skills to manage their fears and become better equipped to handle the situations that provoke anxiety. One such method is participation in a group which uses ―direct teaching‖ to impart important skills for our young people. Young people are taught concrete strategies for coping with daily stress and worries, as well as skills to build positive relationships. These types of programs have been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety and depression in children, teens, and young adults. These social skill groups benefit children by promoting self-confidence and emotional resilience that can last a lifetime.

Supporting today’s youth in developing their friendship skills will inevitably lead to an increase in self-esteem. After all, we are social creatures. When children feel good about themselves, they are more willing to take positive risks—both academically and socially. When a child is socially competent they are more easily able to be empathetic towards others, problem solve, cooperate, work together in a team, and learn to manage their emotions when things don’t go the way they had hoped. DM offers groups to help young people learn the skills they need for success, individual and family support, as well as in school support from Educational Consult- ants. Together we can make a difference — give us a call!


DM Family & School Services