Children and Anxiety: When to Worry About Worry

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By Sherry Allen, MA, LPC Intern

Children worry. Feeling anxious is a natural reaction to stressful situations. Yet, that feeling can become a disorder when it interferes with a child’s ability to function and navigate through daily experiences.

What Worry Level is Healthy?
Crisis is unavoidable. During a crisis, a certain level of anxiety is a normal emotion and can even be useful. Learning to adapt – especially through feelings of uneasiness – is an essential skill that carries into adulthood and can be an excellent tool as we “bump” through life.  For example, beginning school and growing in independence in other activities can prompt fear of separation. Learning to work through this challenge can foster empowerment throughout childhood, adolescence and young adulthood as one leaves home for the workforce or college. Other common school-related worries include riding the bus, taking tests, dealing with social media pressures and meeting new teachers and classmates. Processing such events promotes problem solving, flexibility, and positive expectancy. Yes, worry is going to happen. Learning to understand how worry works is possible and absolutely worthwhile!

When Worry Crosses a Line

Worry becomes problematic when a child avoids routine, isolates themselves or has difficulty problem solving.  When worry is not addressed, it can begin to exhibit characteristics of anxiety.  Whereas worry tends to be experienced within our heads, anxiety can exhibit symptoms within our bodies. Worry reacts well to problem solving and reasoning, anxiety tends to linger and can lead to a higher level of emotional distress. When worry begins to inhibit everyday functionality, a personalized and focused approach should be considered.

Identifying an Anxiety Disorder

Causes of anxiety can be environmental, biological, psychological or developmental (and often is a combination of these and other factors). As a disorder, anxiety is among the earliest – and most common – to develop within children and teens.  Studies show that 1 in 8 children exhibit anxiety. Untreated anxiety in children is a leading predictor of depression in teens and young adults.

When confronting anxiety, it is essential to understand its nature. Anxiety requires – and feeds on – certainty and comfort. According to child anxiety expert Lynn Lyons, LICSW, thedemands of anxietyhave two clear profiles:

Certainty:“I have to know what’s going to happen next … and I want to control it!”

 Comfort:“I want to feel safe and comfortable … or else I want out!”

Yes, anxiety requires two things: Certaintyand Comfort. For example, achild might fear participating in sports and other activities, given performance unpredictability and social pressures. They may ask…Will I be good enough? What if I do something wrong? What if I let people down? Or…This doesn’t feel comfortable -I would rather not try this. Often, instead of working through the fear in a constructive way, this child may experience emotional and physical discomfort and choose to avoid such situations.

Tools to Use at Home

The Good News: Anxiety is treatable. To offset excessive worry, caretakers can employ many tools at home. These include:

Promoting Flexibility.Rigid schedules can limit a child’s capacity to adapt. Occasional change to a routine can be healthy, as it teaches a child that new and different processes do not have to be associated with fear.

Thinking Small. Global statements – like, “I’m never going to understand how to do multiplication.” – can perpetuate an all-or-nothing mindset. Breaking tasks and social norms into attainable goals can reduce overwhelming emotions and ultimately boost a child’s self-esteem. A caretaker could suggest breaking large concepts into more attainable parts. If a child is overwhelmed at connecting with new classmates and has the global thought, “I’m never going to have any friends.” Thinking small and breaking this social process into smaller goals, can be beneficial. In this situation, finding 1-2 children that share one or more similar interests may be a great place to start.

The Benefits of Professional Treatment

Tools to work through anxiety, of course, are not one size fits all. Like adults, children and teens have unique challenges. Professional counseling services can provide skills specific to one’s evolving situation and needs. Additionally, professional therapy is most successful when it incorporates the family system. This allows individuals and those within their family system to make positive change and support a personal course of action.

I am passionate about anxiety-related issues, I specialize in working with children, adolescents, young adults and their families. Without doubt, each of us will face anxiety in our lives. It is simply inevitable. My goal as a counselor is to help individuals and families understand how anxiety operates, and what to do when it occurs.

If worry is interfering with your family’s life, let’s connect. To schedule an appointment, call (940) 390-9777 cell / (940) 222-8552 x 104 office  or click here.

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