'Worry and fear are constant': How to support your child with an anxiety disorder

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"Be honest with the child in an age-appropriate way and without overwhelming them with too much information".
"Be honest with the child in an age-appropriate way and without overwhelming them with too much information".

The prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% during the first year of the pandemic, finds a report by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The report showed that women and youth have been "worst hit," pointing to social isolation, fear of infection and grief after a loss as significant contributors to the increase. 

American researchers from the Health Resources and Services Administration show similar statistics.

Looking at data from 2016 to 2020, researchers found that anxiety in children aged 3 to 17 increased by 27%.

"By 2020, 5.6 million kids (9.2%) had been diagnosed with anxiety problems," the report indicated.

Locally, the South African Child Gauge report revealed that up to 20% of children develop a mental disorder, neurodevelopmental disability, or both.

And while the report did not provide specific data on anxiety and depression, local neurofeedback therapy specialist Kerry Rudman says she's seen an increase in children needing treatment for anxiety and anxiety disorders.

"I am seeing children who are now experiencing fear of death," she says, adding that she's seen children as young as 8 needing treatment. 

Also read: 'A cost SA cannot afford': Child mental health crisis at tipping point, shows report 

Anxiety as a normal function of human emotion

Rudman notes that it's essential to understand the difference between anxiety as a normal function of human emotion and anxiety disorders, which impacts daily life. 

"Every person, child, and adult will feel anxious at some point… It prevents us from doing something dangerous and can motivate us".

Rudman says that physical symptoms like a racing heart, sweating, and aching stomach may occur due to anxiety and are more common in children.

According to Rudman, symptoms of anxiety in children may include:

• Problems concentrating

• Sleep struggles like not sleeping or waking in the night with bad dreams

• Poor eating habits

• Anger outbursts and irritable mood

• Constant worrying or negative thoughts

• Tense and fidgety behaviour like using the toilet often

Normal vs. problematic anxiety

"What differentiates normal from problematic anxiety is the degree to which the anxiety interferes with functioning," Rudman says of signs your child may be struggling with an anxiety disorder, with avoidance being a major indicator to seek professional assistance.

Rudman notes that there are different types of anxiety disorders, including Panic disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Generalised anxiety disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

"For people with anxiety disorders, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming and can be crippling," she says. Referencing the American Academy of Pediatrics, Rudman says you should seek treatment from a psychologist or psychiatrist if you recognise the following scenarios:

• Your child disrupts the household and interferes with family activities and life due to avoidance tactics

• Your child gets upset throughout the day or week. 

• Your child gets upset more and more frequently and intensely with screaming, and tantrums become increasingly common. 

• Your child makes constant excuses to avoid school or other anxiety-inducing situations. 

• Your child has difficulty interacting with friends or struggles to make friends.

• Your child has disrupted sleep habits

• Your child presents with compulsive behaviour and rituals, like repeated hand washing and counting and is unable to leave home without performing these rituals.

• Your child presents with physical symptoms like vomiting, stomach aches, etc. 

• Your child experiences panic attacks, heart palpitations, sweating, nausea, and hyperventilation.

Also read: Is there a link between childhood trauma and prolonged bedwetting? 

The best way parents can support their children

"The goal is to be supportive rather than accommodating. If you allow a socially anxious child to stay home from school or excuse them from family activities, you're enabling avoidance, and doing so actually reinforces the anxiety," Rudman says.

And in addition to professional treatment, Rudman suggests the following ways to support a child with an anxiety disorder.

Listen to your child

"It's important to listen to the child and validate that you understand that they may be feeling uncomfortable or fearful, but you have faith in their ability to tolerate the discomfort, reassuring them that they will be okay".

Age-appropriate honesty

"Equally important is, to be honest with the child in an age-appropriate way and without overwhelming them with too much information. Children need information delivered in a way that doesn't leave gaps in their understanding. When there are gaps, kids fill them in with their own beliefs, which may be inaccurate and anxiety-inducing".

Reassure them

"You can't promise a child that their fears are unrealistic—that they won't fail a test, that they'll have fun at a play date, or that another child won't laugh at them during show and tell. But you can express confidence that they're going to be okay. Let them know that as they face those fears, the anxiety level will drop over time".

Kerry Rudman 


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