Children today seem to be experiencing anxiety at higher levels than ever before. In response to this trend, the State of Florida has become the first in the nation to require mental health education for students in grades six through 12. Parents do all we can to help our anxious kids, but typical parenting approaches don’t always work for children with anxiety disorders. That’s why the Alachua County Council of PTAs and Alachua County Public Schools sponsored a parenting workshop this past November to offer support and information about anxiety disorders in children.
Speakers from the Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resource System (FDLRS) and the University of Florida Department of Psychiatry met with parents for about two hours at the Dayspring Missionary Baptist Church. Speakers focused heavily on signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders and what parents can do to help their children.
KNOW YOUR CHILD
When it comes to mental health disorders, parents often doubt themselves. They may assume that their children are just going through a phase and ignore that irritating feeling in their gut. But, the truth, as Michelle Surman from FDLRS reminded parents, is that parents are experts on their own children. When you see your child demonstrating signs of anxiety that go on for a long time and prevent your child from doing the things they need or want to do, it’s time to seek help. Don’t ignore that gut feeling.
Signs of anxiety can be overt, including irritability, restlessness, inattention, poor focus, avoidance, tantrums, difficulties with transitions and trouble sleeping. Parents know that all children sometimes experience all these symptoms. It’s the intensity, frequency and duration that you need to watch out for.
It’s also important to remember that quiet, well-behaved children may also be experiencing significant levels of anxiety. These children often demonstrate more subtle symptoms of anxiety as they keep their feelings bottled up inside. Subtle signs of anxiety include needing frequent reassurance, avoiding new situations, unexplained fears or physical pains, problems at school, becoming easily upset, being overly cautious or pessimistic, not wanting to sleep alone and complaining often. Again, we see that these are all symptoms that children naturally experience. When they become impairing in any way, it’s time to get help for your child.
HELP YOUR CHILD
Anxiety is not a bad thing. It helps us avoid dangerous situations. If your child experiences too much anxiety, anxiety that won’t go away, or anxiety that doesn’t seem typical, speak to your pediatrician or school guidance counselor. They can refer you to an appropriate mental health professional.
Anxiety disorders are treatable. Parents and children often attend therapy together so parents can learn skills to use at home when children experience heightened anxiety. Children may also be prescribed medication to help them cope with anxiety.
FDLRS child find specialist Terry Hill stressed the positive impact that parents can have on their children’s anxiety. She noted that children are naturally perceptive and tend to feed off parents’ emotions. As we control our emotions and model appropriate coping skills, our children learn how to use those same skills.
Hill suggested that parents use humor or relatively harmless questions (“What did you have for lunch today?”) to get kids talking. Then be patient, giving them time to respond. Kids may not want to talk at first, but parents should patiently persist, demonstrating their love and care. Let them know that you’re there to talk when they are ready.
“Love your kids. Tell your kids how good they are. Accentuate their positives,” Hill said. “And the things they struggle with, struggle with them. Acknowledge their struggles.” Then ask them how you can work through it together. Tell them they are loved and not alone.
Anxiety wears many masks. Some children will be withdrawn and quiet while others will lash out, becoming argumentative, aggressive, and easily distracted. Children may not have the words to be able to express what they are feeling or be able to recognize when they are overly anxious. It’s up to the adults in their lives to see when they are feeling anxious. Listen to what the child is saying. Pay attention to their behaviors. Then make sure they know they are loved and that you are there for them no matter what.
Does your kiddo need help coping with frequent anxiety? Here are some strategies you can use to help children with anxiety.