Children and teenagers can experience anxiety too. Young people who have generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, report feeling stressed out and excessively, uncontrollably worried about what we might consider trivial matters, as well as about future events. They might be concerned about the goings-on at home or at school, about finances, about the state of the world, about their academic, athletic or artistic performance, about the relationship between their parents, or about their health.
Katherine, a dance instructor and mother to Everly, 13, is no stranger to anxiety. She shares that while it runs in her family, she’d never had experiences with anxiety as severe as Everly’s, which began when Everly was about four or five years old.
“I remember gathering around the table at her birthday party, and we had this big cake for her, which of course had candles on it,” Katherine says. “We started singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her, and her eyes went really wide and tearful and she just stared at her dad and me with this mortified look on her face. And then she started hyperventilating, and everyone started to panic. It was chaos.”
Once Katherine gathered Everly into her arms and into a safe, quiet space, Everly confided that the candles frightened her. She told her mother she was worried the four candles would come together as one candle, with enough power to set the cake – and then eventually the table, and the whole house – on fire. And because everyone was so busy paying attention to her, and singing loudly, no one would notice the fire and put it out on time.
Since then, the song Happy Birthday has triggered anxiety in Everly.
About two years later, Katherine’s grandfather, to whom Everly had been close, passed away. Everly, of course, saw his casket roll out of the black hearse at the graveyard. Having never seen ‘a long car’ before, Everly asked her mother how “a big box could fit in a car,” Katherine recalls. “I explained to her that it was designed for these purposes specifically. I certainly didn’t think anything of it.”
Shortly after the funeral, whenever Everly would catch sight of a limousine – a long car – she would have a panic attack.
“She connected long cars to death,” Katherine says. “She’s older now and we’ve explained it and I know logically she understands. But that initial connection, even just remembering she made that connection, still has an impact now. She has this sick feeling in her stomach that’s immediate, and it takes some effort on her part to think that feeling away.
“It’s been a journey. She relies so much on what she takes away from therapy, which has been what I think is the biggest reason she’s a high-functioning teenager now.”
Does your child have anxiety?
When worry is excessive and uncontrollable, or when your child seems to worry more than his or her friends and peers, that could be a sign of an anxiety disorder. If, like Everly, worrying is difficult to stop once it has begun, and happens more often than not, that could also be a sign of anxiety disorder. Finally, if three or more physical symptoms accompany the worry, like irritability, an upset stomach, muscle tension, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, or persistent fatigue, that could also be a sign of an anxiety disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder is difficult for anyone at any age, but particularly so for a child.
If your child has anxiety, they’re not alone
Here are some facts about anxiety in young people:
Girls are two times more likely to have generalized anxiety disorder than boys
Approximately 1% of all adolescents will have generalized anxiety disorder in any given year
If left undiagnosed and untreated, generalized anxiety disorder will have the potential to worsen over time; as children mature into their adult years, the disorder can create significant difficulty for the child in day-to-day functioning
80% of kids with a diagnosable anxiety disorder are not getting treated
What are the signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder in children?
Physically, your child may complain of the following:
Having a stomach ache that can’t be explained by bad food or a food sensitivity
A throbbing or persistent headache
Muscle pain, typically in the neck or shoulders
Feeling excessively tired
Inability to sit still, or feeling fidgety
Emotionally, your child may or may not share with you that they’re feeling:
Extremely worried or anxious
Guilty, even if they can’t explain why
Ashamed (again, even if they can’t explain why)
Their behavior might be cause for alarm too, or it might seem ‘off’ to you. They may have routine tantrums over minute matters, or may snap at others for what seems like no reason at all. They may have a tough time paying attention or concentrating on things like schoolwork or household duties. They may have a hard time falling or staying asleep.
Anxiety can manifest itself in other ways too. Some parents share that their anxious child seems to study excessively, or seeks validation more often than what seems normal. They make ask for reassurance over and over again. Some anxious children make long, unreasonable lists for themselves or others, while others procrastinate or put off really important things that need to be completed. In more extreme cases, some kids refuse to go to school, or even leave the house.
How to help a child who fidgets.
What could my child be thinking?
If you’ve never had anxiety, you may be challenged with coming up with what could possibly be going on in your child’s mind. If you have had experience with anxiety, you’ll be more than familiar with some of the worries consuming your child, and you know that while most of it is likely not based in reality, it feels real – which is what makes it all so terrifying.
Children who have been able to identify and share some of their fears have reported the following thoughts. Keep in mind these are not applicable to all children, but that these are some of the most typical thoughts shared by children with anxiety:
What if something bad happens to my parents or my family?
What if something bad happens to me?
What if there was a flood (or a hurricane, or a storm, or an earthquake, or some kind of natural disaster) and our house got destroyed? Where would we go?
What if I get sick? (Kids may worry about getting more serious ailments, like cancer, as opposed to the common cold)
What if someone breaks into our house while we’re not home?
What if the dog gets out and gets hit by a car?
If I start talking in class, what if the kids decide I’m dumb and they don’t like me?
What if my grandma forgets to pick me up after school?
What if the house burns down?
What if my parents don’t come home?
Tips for helping a child with anxiety.
How do these thoughts impact my child?
There are a number of areas that can be affected by an anxiety disorder. Your child may refuse to go to school, or have a record of repeated absenteeism. Your child may have a panic attack over having to attend a school field trip, or may isolate themselves from others, refusing or unwilling to create friendships. Your child may participate in things they love less and less, resulting in fewer activities and even more time alone to think. Your child may focus on interests related to areas of worry (i.e. researching excessively on climate change if they’re worried about the state of the world, or they may study about communicable diseases if they’re most concerned about contracting germs or a disease).
Younger kids, even those who may not be able to share what they’re worried about, typically worry about immediate matters, including how they’re perceived or liked at school or on the playground, the safety of their family members, or how well they perform on the field or on the stage. If they don’t share these fears in a straightforward manner, they may complain about physical ailments, like headaches, stomachaches, or an inability to fall or stay asleep. Here’s an example: when Everly is ready to hit the stage (she’s a tap dancer like her mother), she’ll report an upset stomach up to 30 seconds before the curtain rises. “She’s definitely thrown up a couple of times, but as she’s getting older, I’m trying to be sensitive to her condition while trying to teach her not to let that condition control her,” says Katherine. “More often than not, it passes, she performs like a champion, and we get through it. Foods to help ease anxiety.
“And then it starts again the next performance. And we deal with it then.”
As children get older, their worries shift to more serious concerns. They become less worried about themselves, instead worrying about those they love. They think about things like the political state of the country, global warming, or the financial stability of their family. These worries can appear on the faces of these children, as they typically look exhausted, withdrawn, or as if they’re mentally far away.
“I’ve had people tell me, people who don’t even know Everly, that she seems so much more mature than other kids,” Katherine shares. “It’s because she’s so cautious and guarded, so she’s never run or bounced around like her friends. She’s embraced this mother role, so parents love her because they’re like, ‘Wow, she’s so careful! She watches out for everyone.’ Meanwhile, I know it’s because she’s so worried about everything. ‘Is the swing going to fall off the chain? Is someone going to scrape their knee and get an infection?’ That kind of stuff.”
An anxiety disorder does not have to be a lifelong sentence. It is a highly treatable disorder, and with the right therapist or mental health professional, your child can learn techniques on how to manage their worries and reduce their response to anxious thoughts. To find out more, visit us at www.hopetherapyandwellness.com.
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