Anxiety and stress have become rampant in youth today. More than half of today’s adolescents say they struggle with feeling stressed on a daily basis. And younger children, too, have become increasingly fearful about being teased, failing school, fitting in or being made fun of.
Anxiety is a normal part of childhood. It’s built into our nervous system to protect us from harm. It’s healthy to be wary of dangerous situations. But that primitive self-protection alarm system has run amok in modern times. As we race to keep up with 24/7 demands for immediate results and instant gratification, our children are constantly under siege with demands — be better, smarter, faster. Their emotional brains are working overtime.
For some, the worries grow disproportionately large. Anxiety disorders affect one in eight children. These are pervasive patterns of anxiety and worry that can’t be easily reassured or relieved. Anxiety disorders involve distorted thinking — overestimating both the probability of something bad happening and the intensity or degree of negative impact.
Research shows that untreated, children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, engage in substance abuse and become clinically depressed.
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Unfortunately, it is all too common for well meaning parents and teachers to inadvertently increase a child’s anxious feelings, avoidant behaviors and sense of inadequacy. To avoid these easy-to-fall-into traps, do not:
▪ Excessively reassure your child, telling them “everything will be all right.” This negates what the child is feeling, can make them feel that you don’t understand and may offer an unrealistic or false promise.
▪ Encourage avoidance — removing the child from the feared situation. This provides temporary relief (short-term gain), but ultimately increases the likelihood of more avoidance in the future (long-term pain).
▪ Be too directive — telling the child exactly what to do. This dis-empowers the child and can make them feel more dependent, helpless and inadequate.
▪ Be overly empathetic — sharing too much detail about how you understand because of your own fears and anxieties. This may worry the child more, and make them worry about you.
Instead, seek to strike a calm, compassionate and confident tone with your children. To help your child worry less and live more, do:
▪ Acknowledge and validate that they have some worrisome thoughts. Show kind and curious attention to these symptoms. Recognize that thoughts are just thoughts, and we don’t’ have to believe or be controlled by them. We can just say, “Oh yeah, there’s that worry bug thought again.” And let it be.
▪ Normalize how it’s OK to feel nervous, and model how you can still do things even when you feel that way. Brainstorm with your child, not for them. Encourage them to notice ways they’ve gotten through scary times before. Focus on realistic thinking and practical next steps.
▪ Let them know you believe in them, that they can and will find a way through their fears, and that you’ll be there to support them when times get tough. Celebrate little successes along the way.
To learn more about remedies for childhood anxiety, attend the Feb. 21 Straight Talk presentation from 7-8:30 p.m. at Mount Nittany Middle School, 656 Brandywine Drive, State College. The event is sponsored by the Jana Marie Foundation and State College Area School District.
Peter Montminy, Ph.D., is a clinical child psychologist and mindfulness teacher.