What is anxiety?
While this can vary widely from person to person, anxiety is generally understood to be a feeling of apprehension about things to come. It can often occur in response to a situation that induces a feeling of stress.
Those anxiety-producing situations have evolved from early times when the big concerns were getting attacked by a predator or starving because you couldn't find food. Now children face academic stress, relational stress and a myriad of others.
While we can recognize the different situations, our brains cannot and ready us to combat the threat, even if it isn't lions, tigers and bears anymore.
What are the signs of young children suffering from anxiety?
Many children might experience one form of behaviour or cycle through a few. This trio of behaviours is known as fight-flight-freeze and explain how individuals affected by anxiety might respond to a certain situation.
- Fight. This response can lead to reactive behaviours as your muscles tense up and you're ready to combat whatever is causing the feeling of unease. A child in fight mode might even act animalistic, growling or barking.
- Flight. In the case of homework, your child may actually run to a different room or area to flee the threat of multiplication tables. They might even have a favourite hiding spot where they feel safe.
- Freeze. They may describe feeling stuck or paralyzed and this could manifest as more time on screens, daydreaming or moving slowly through their space.
Less formally though, your little one might complain of chest tightness, sweaty palms, a tummy ache, irritability, become more argumentative or even isolate themselves.
What are the long-term effects of problem anxiety in children?
When young children expresses a feeling of anxiety, parents or loved ones can step in and encourage the child to find creative solutions to manage the sense of disquiet.
When they don't have this gentle guidance, a child facing chronic anxiety may develop something known as learned helplessness where they simply give up. Gone is the thought of, 'I can change my situation' and replaced instead with the thought of, 'Oh well, I can't change this'.
What is "normal anxiety" and what's not?
This is an important question to ask ourselves as parents, because anxiety serves a protective and sometimes motivating role in our lives.
If a deadline for an assignment suddenly gets moved up, the sense of unease may motivate your young academic to complete the work. However, the severity of the anxiety may be unreasonable given the situation.
At this point, it would be considered 'problem anxiety' as it could lead to disruptions in the child's daily life. That could manifest as changes in their social, academic and/or health spheres.
As parents or loved ones, what can we do to help?
- Validate feelings. With the demands of development, both physically and cognitively, children perceive the world in a spectrum of ways. As mentioned, anxiety can be protective which means parents should focus on how to cope and manage rather than eliminate.
- Herbal remedies.
- Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata) was also investigated in a double-blind, placebo control trial that showed consumption of a low dose of the herb as a tea improved sleep quality. This study is exciting as the benefits of a good night's rest cannot be overstated in supporting childhood development. Passion flower also demonstrates benefits in treating symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder on par with oxazepam, a common anti-anxiety medication.
- Another option to consider is green oat (Avena sativa) which was shown to reduce the physiologic response to stress in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study in healthy humans. Some thoughts on why it has this benefit is due to its ability to inhibit an enzyme known as PDE4 which reduces stress, anxiety and depression. Avenaforce contains an extract of green oat and the drops can be added to water.
- Create a plan. Anxiety Canada is a registered charity and non-profit supporting the health of Canadian youth that has developed a useful tool known as MAP. Short for My Anxiety Plan, this resource can help caregivers coach anxious children and develop the tools to face anxiety-provoking situations.
- Mind body therapy. You may have heard of different programs bringing therapies like yoga, tai chi and meditation in to schools in place of more punitive punishments like detention. One randomized pilot trial in sixth-grade children showed improvements in anxiety symptoms and they were less likely to develop suicidal ideation or thoughts of self-harm.
If you've enjoyed this article, consider reading Dealing with Anxiety Attacks on our blog.
This article does not provide medical advice and is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.