Struggling with an anxious child? Here's help

PHOTO: Gallo images/ Getty images
PHOTO: Gallo images/ Getty images

“I can’t go to school – my stomach hurts.”

Many parents are likely to have heard these words from a child they know is physically fine but emotionally wobbly. It can turn the morning routine into a daunting challenge, particularly if you see genuine worry in their eyes. What can you do to help?

Whether your child is a six-year-old who’s not enjoying school because they’re struggling to make friends, or a 13-year-old who’s fretting about the exam they have that day, witnessing their state of anxiety can leave you feeling helpless and frustrated.

We think of childhood as the carefree stage of life but just like adults, children feel worried and anxious at times – and for some it can be debilitating.

“It’s a myth children don’t worry,” says Dr David Benn, a Johannesburg-based child psychiatrist.

“They worry at least as much as adults do and sometimes more, but children are far less able to verbalise their feelings and may simply appear angry or upset.

"There’s tremendous anxiety in kids and we’re definitely seeing an increase,” says Dr Helen Clark, a psychiatrist who works with children and adolescents at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Soweto.

The symptoms of anxiety in kids are often mistaken for something else, she adds. Sometimes they’re seen as just excessively shy or quiet. Boys are often labelled as naughty, disruptive or difficult. But when anxiety isn’t seen for what it is, it can affect a child’s mental and emotional development.

Severe anxiety that’s left untreated could develop into an anxiety disorder or lead to depression. The good news is there are practical ways in which parents can help anxious children cope with their feelings. We asked experts to give their tips and explain when professional help is needed.

What makes children anxious?

Children tend to feel anxious about different things at different ages. A child’s first experience of this uneasy feeling is as a toddler when they become upset when separated from their parents or carer. This so-called separation anxiety is a normal stage of development and tends to ease off around age two or three. It’s important to understand that anxiety is a normal human emotion and there are times throughout a child’s life when they’ll feel anxious, such as when they go to a new school or before exams.

When is anxiety a problem?

Some anxiety is normal, but it becomes a problem when it starts to interfere with a child’s everyday life. For example, most kids will feel a little anxious before an exam, but if a child is so crippled by worry during an exam that they can’t get anything down on paper or don’t even make it to school, it’s time to get help.

“It’s a problem when a child is so terribly overcome by anxiety that they can’t get over it themselves,” says Sue van der Spuy, a trauma counsellor from Somerset West near Cape Town.

What causes childhood anxiety?

There are numerous contributing factors. Personality, lifestyle, genes and environmental factors such as crime can all play a role, explains Marita Rademeyer of the Child Trauma Clinic in Gauteng.

Also, these days children are under more pressure to perform academically and in sport than they were even a decade  ago, Marita says. “They have to work hard at school from an early age and think about the career they want to follow. It’s not unusual for an 11-year-old to tell you he’s working on his CV for high school.” 

Add to this the fact that the so-called “iGeneration” (those younger than 21) spend a lot of time on smartphones, tablets and computers, which affects their emotional development, Dr Benn says. A 2015 study by child psychologists at Boston University School of Medicine in the US found children who spent a lot of time using mobile media devices battled to control their emotions.  This was linked to the fact that mobile media had reduced the amount of time spent engaging in direct human interaction.

Other factors that can make kids anxious include: 

1. Not enough sleep

This can be due to a late bedtime or bad sleeping patterns such as not winding down before the lights go out.

2. Their personality

Certain children are just more prone to feeling anxious. This is often hereditary.

3. Their self-image

Kids with self-image problems are more susceptible to anxiety.

4. An inconsistent routine

Young children, especially, feel more secure if they have a schedule for the day, so they know there’s a pattern that’s followed regarding when it’s time to eat, nap, bath and go to bed.

5. Unclear rules

Rules and boundaries need to be clear. It’s confusing if parents change their minds from one week or month to the next about when kids are allowed to watch TV or use the Xbox or PlayStation. Decide what the rules are, explain them and stick to them.

6. Anxious parents

A child’s anxiety can be worsened if the adults around them are also anxious.

How to spot anxiety

Possible signs a child is struggling with anxiety include excessive caution, physical ailments such as headaches, stomach aches or nausea, regular crying for no reason, anger and aggression, problems concentrating, poor appetite, fear of failure, excessive neediness, frequent soiling or wetting their bed, fidgeting, constantly asking for reassurance and regression.  

Be alert to situations where a child’s anxiety levels don’t improve even long after a traumatic experience (such as the death of a beloved grandparent). If the child repeatedly complains about stomach ache or continues to display other symptoms, there might be an anxiety problem, Dr Clark says.

What parents can do

Many parents have a hard enough time providing for a child’s basic needs – a home, clothing and food – so they often forget their emotional needs, Dr Clark says. Here’s what you can do: 

  • Talk to your child about their feelings and help them build up a vocabulary for expressing their emotions. 
  • Help your child understand what they are feeling, but withdraw sometimes so they learn the appropriate coping skills.    
  • If bullying at school is the cause, deal with it by approaching the teacher or headmaster at the school.    
  • Follow up regularly – ask your child if they’re feeling any worse or better.    
  • Keep in mind that your own depression or anxiety can cause anxiety in your child, so seek treatment for yourself if     necessary.    
  • If you feel that you can’t help your child despite providing support and encouragement, consider getting professional help, Sue advises.
  • You can also contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group on 0800-212-223.     
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