Everyone experiences anxiety now and then. But a flag is raised when it occurs frequently in a child. Recent studies show that anxiety among American children is on the rise. As many as 10 to 15 percent may in fact be affected by some form of anxiety disorder. For reassurance and advice, we turned to psychologist Ilyne Sandas, M.A., L.P., co-author of the recent book The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Anxiety.
Parent & Child: What are some signs of childhood anxiety disorder?
Ilyne Sandas: Symptoms vary, and it depends on how long they last. But if a child has frequent meltdowns; isolates herself; has difficulty controlling her emotions; or has stomachaches or headaches regularly around school, socializing, or sports — and these last for more than a month — seek professional help.
P&C: Is there a time during childhood when anxiety issues tend to arise more than others?
Sandas: Doctors suggest watching for signs between ages 6 and 8. A child’s ability at this time to handle tests, friendships, and team participation can be very telling. With anxiety, a determination is made based on the child’s age, developmental level, and the symptoms and their effect on the child’s life.
P&C: How can a parent soothe an anxious child in the moment?
Sandas: You can help to “contain” anxiety by putting things in perspective and setting boundaries. For example, if your child wants to cancel a play date because he perceives you’re upset about something, you can explain, “Honey, I’m only stressed about work — not you. Everyone has moments when things get on top of them, and then they feel better. Go have fun — we can play later.”
P&C: In what situations is any child likely to feel anxious?
Sandas: “Expected anxiety” is feeling apprehensive before a test, big game, class presentation, etc. If your child is worried about a quiz, you might say, “Remember, sweetheart, you knew the material very well last night. Take a deep breath first, and you’ll do great.”
P&C: Some anxious kids have “positive” personality traits such as a strong sense of responsibility and overachievement. When do such traits become too much for a child?
Sandas: When the trait becomes unhealthy or hurtful to the child. It can sometimes be hard for parents to acknowledge when this happens, because they view the behavior as part of their child’s personality and something that can’t be changed. But parents can intervene and help their little one.
P&C: How can parents minimize the chances of anxiety in the first place?
Sandas: You can help by respecting your child for who she really is — not who you want, believe, or hope she will be. Also provide a loving, consistent structure; try not to undermine how your child sees herself in the world; limit exposure to violent media; and communicate, communicate, communicate!