Parenting an anxious child is not an easy task. Children who are suffering from anxiety often do not fully understand why they feel the way they do. As parents, it is our job to calm the anxious child as well as to help him/her learn ways and techniques to manage their anxiety.
Child anxiety assessment
Anxiety disorders are quite prevalent in the United States, with at least one in eight kids suffering from it. If you believe that your child has an anxiety disorder, do make a trip to the doctor to get a proper assessment.
A proper and accurate assessment is important in order to decide on the best course of treatment for your child. An evaluation of your child’s condition will include:
- A detailed assessment of current symptoms, duration as well as intensity.
- Identifying patterns of symptoms that you may have observed.
- Evaluation of your child’s background and development.
- A review of your family’s medical history.
- Mental status assessment.
All this might be very scary to your child, so remember to talk to your child about what is happening. Let your child know that the anxiety is not his fault and that you will help through the process.
What happens if childhood anxiety is left untreated?
Generally, if childhood anxiety is left untreated, it will become worse over time. As your child’s first response to quell the worries and fears is to avoid the situation or things that trigger the anxiety, he or she will learn that avoidance reduces anxiety. While this may work in the short term, it is not helping in the long run. The child is still fearful and does not have the right tools to overcome anxiety.
How are anxiety disorders treated?
1. Cognitive behavior therapy
Cognitive Behavior Therapy or CBT is centred around the belief that our thoughts, feelings and actions are interrelated. Thus, to reduce anxiety, the child would have to change their negative thinking and dysfunctional behavior. For younger children, CBT will most likely focus on the behavioral part of CBT. A common part of CBT is Exposure Therapy.
It aims to curb anxiety while still remaining in the everyday living condition that is familiar to the sufferer. This treatment consists of children age seven and above for an obvious reason.
Medication might be too early to be introduced and parents usually opt for non-medicine treatment first. CBT has shown favourable results in treating anxiety disorders among children. Encouragement from parents is key for this sort of therapy. It helps the child to identify that this is a concern for their wellbeing and they usually respond positively towards the therapy.
2. Exposure Therapy
One of the most common and effective CBT methods, exposure therapy is used to treat many anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy is based on the idea that when the child with anxiety is exposed to the anxiety trigger, he or she will soon become accustomed to the triggers and thus, there will be a reduction in the anxiety that they feel. The exposure to the anxiety trigger is done in a safe setting, in incremental steps.
For example, if a child is afraid of dogs, exposure therapy could start with the therapist talking to the child about dogs and show the child pictures of dogs. Once the child is more comfortable, the therapist may show the child a dog that is in a cage. As the child gets more accustomed to his anxiety trigger, the therapist may bring in a small dog for the child to touch.
3. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
Another type of CBT is Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). In DBT, your child will learn mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness and emotion regulation.
With mindfulness, your child is taught to be aware of what is going on in the present and to notice passing thoughts, such as worries, without giving room for the thoughts to take control. In distress tolerance, your child will learn how to manage their anxiety in a stressful situation.
With interpersonal effectiveness, your child will learn to ask for what they need, as well as learn how to say no. Emotion regulation helps your child to manage anxiety before it becomes out of control.
DBT is a treatment that sees the strengths of the child. In DBT, the child will learn to accept who they are, while still actively working to change and improve themselves.
4. Psychoanalytic Therapy
Psychoanalytic therapy would say that the child’s anxiety reflects unconscious conflicts and thus, the aim of this therapy would be to resolve those conflicts. Here, the therapist will examine the child’s thoughts, fears and desires in order to be able to understand how the child sees himself. Psychoanalysis is effective, but long term therapy.
It is longer in duration but sometimes necessary depending on the child’s situation and personality. In Psychoanalytic therapy, a lot of talking is involved. With that, the medical professional helping the child can focus on the root of the problem by allowing them to talk about it.
Through the years, this remedy has gotten children to manage their anxiety better.
Children and adolescents are also encouraged to self-manage their anxiety. This remedy is often passed-over, as it is perceived not helpful enough or not effective enough.
It is quite the contrary actually. This includes practical means of looking at their fear in a different light. A medical specialist treating children’s anxiety disorders can best offer the option in doing this. Frustration can also set in if the child does not cooperate. If steady and gradual but positive changes are expected, this is the therapy for your child.
5. Natural anxiety medication for children
Generally considered safe, chamomile is quite effective in reducing anxiety symptoms. However, chamomile does cause allergic reactions in some people so be careful if you are using it for your child.
Oral lavender or aromatherapy with lavender can also reduce anxiety. Side effects of oral lavender include increased appetite, constipation, and headaches
Lemon balm is another natural supplement that is known to reduce symptoms of anxiety. Although safe in the short term, side effects that may show up include nausea and abdominal pain.
Do take note that these natural solutions are not approved nor monitored by the FDA. Thus, although natural, they might not be safe.
6. Approved Medication for pediatric anxiety
The two common medications that are given to calm a child who is suffering anxiety are Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and Benzodiazepines.
SSRIs work to increase serotonin levels in the brain, and thus, balance brain chemicals that might be out of whack. SSRIs is a medication that is often prescribed because they are non-addictive and have very few side effects.
The side effects of SSRIs are not harmful and will usually resolve in the first few months of taking it. Side effects of SSRIs include gastrointestinal upset, weight loss, headaches and drowsiness. While these side effects are considered quite mild, do inform your child’s doctor if your child is experiencing them so that the best course of action can be taken to relieve your child’s discomfort.
Benzodiazepines are usually used to treat acute anxiety cases, such as panic attacks and PTSD. It is not meant to be used for long term as the child can build up a tolerance to it. This means that the longer the child is on benzodiazepines, the higher the dosage is needed for the same effect to take place.
Child anxiety treatment at home
Here are some things that you can do at home to help your child over anxiety
One of the signs of anxiety is short, shallow breathing. This is part of the body’s ‘flight or fight’ response when faced with danger. Deep breathing with attention and concentration will help your child to bring his body into a restful state. Heart rate and blood pressure will decrease, resulting in a calmer, less anxious child.
Art therapy can be done with a therapist or at home. Because of their young age, some children are unable to effectively communicate what is bothering them. One of the ways they can communicate their feelings is through art. Encourage your child to focus on the process of creating, rather than the finished product. Some children find art in itself a very calming activity.
Deep Pressure Therapy
Deep pressure therapy is especially effective with children who are on the autism spectrum. To do this, you can apply firm but gentle pressure on the body of the anxious child with a pressure garment. There have been products, such as the Snug Vest, specially designed for this purpose. You can use a rug or a blanket.
Other forms of help available
When a child has been confirmed of suffering from an anxiety disorder, parents, teachers and caregivers play pivotal roles in helping them deal with it. A trip to a doctor or psychologist can be traumatic for a child as they can sense something is wrong with them.
Assure them that it is perfectly fine to feel uncomfortable initially. By taking the first step talking about it to someone (even if it is not the parents themselves), a child is heard. Listen well and read in between the lines. Most of the time, therapy involving an outsider, such as child psychologist works best with both children and teenage sufferers.
Give them the attention they need to cope and they will cooperate accordingly. Therapy for anxiety disorders is often combined with medication depending on how serious the condition is. Due attention must be given as it can halt a child’s mental growth. It can also cause them to perform poorly in school, possess low self-confidence and become suicidal.
A fair amount of research will be involved in finding a suitable medical establishment that can help your child. Recommendations should first come from trusted family members or friends. Paediatricians will also know the right child psychologist to get your child examined further. Early detection is vital for proper treatment to be administered.
How to find a therapist for my child?
It is important to find a good, competent therapist who is sensitive enough to be able to help your child. After all, the last thing you would want for your child is for the therapy to cause iatrogenic effects. Here are a few factors to consider when deciding on which therapist is the best for your child.
- The therapist should be able to engage with your child. Treatment will most likely fail if your child does not trust the therapist. A good therapist will have a genuine interest in the child as well as try her best to understand what the child is going through.
- Look for a therapist who does not blame others, or blame the child for the problem. Even if the parents are responsible for triggering the child’s anxiety, finding fault and putting the blame on them is not going to help the situation. Find a therapist who understands that anxiety is a complex issue and that action (rather than blame) is needed to solve the issue.
- He/She should be able to separate the problem from the child. A good therapist will be able to see the child’s strengths and potential.
- Look for a therapist who will be an ally. A good therapist understands that the role of the child’s natural support system (parents, primary caregivers, teachers) are just as important as the therapist.
- Always choose a therapist who acknowledges and appreciates the child’s (and your family’s) culture. While it is not necessary for the therapist to be from the same culture, race or background, a good therapist should be sensitive to cultural differences.
While there is no guaranteed treatment that will work, finding the right therapist will result in a more positive experience for you and your child.
Treating anxiety in children might take a long time and you will need to find the right combination of treatments that work for you and your child. You may sometimes feel that your child is taking a step forward and two steps back. The key is not to give up. Your child will soon learn how to identify their triggers and how to manage their anxiety.