Children with learning disorders often have trouble with anxiety, especially with tasks related to schoolwork. Being asked to read aloud, given tests, having to start a creative writing exercise can all trigger anxiety, which causes the child to freeze, show restlessness or even become agitated. This is why it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between anxiety and the behaviours associated with ADHD. If a child has difficulty focusing, anxiety may follow attempts to try; on the other hand, anxiety makes it very difficult to focus.
What is anxiety? Briefly put, it is a concern or worry about something vague and not necessarily connected to anything specific. In a very simple sense, it is the feeling that one’s safety or well-being is threatened. Most children experience anxiety. In the younger years, they may be anxious about being separated from their parents, or fear the dark, barking dogs, or thunderstorms. As they grow, concerns about their school performance may cause anxiety or social relationships. As adults, we can laugh at our childhood fears and anxieties because we’ve developed the ability to view youthful worries in perspective. But most children don’t have the mental maturity and experience to shake off feelings accompanying concerns like “What if I’m not invited to the party?”, “What If I can’t answer the question when it’s my turn?”, “What if I’m not chosen for a team?” None of this is abnormal. Anxiety becomes a problem if it interferes with the child’s normal living. A child who refuses to go to school because of anxiety regarding her ability to cope needs help.
True anxiety can affect up to 10% of young children and it’s not always easy to know what the cause is of the anxiety, or when your child is feeling anxious. This is why anxiety has been called the ‘silent affliction’ because even young people are able to hide their anxiety from others.
Anxious children tend to show specific problems. They
- Find it harder than most other children to calm themselves when faced with a stressful situation
- They seem unable to make plans to cope with their anxiety
- Even when they do come up with a plan, they become discouraged very quickly and give up
- Even when they are succeeding in reducing their anxiety levels they tend to disregard their success
When anxiety is triggered, we all show typical physical reactions: shallow breathing, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, tense muscles, feeling faint or nauseous and so on. Being in the grip of such bodily responses to perceived threat means that the brain is unable to think clearly, making it impossible to reason with the child or comfort them with words. Helping children who are in the grip of anxiety includes teaching them to calm themselves down again. Some children may react well to techniques such as deep breathing, using a punching bag or aerobic exercise.
Once they are calm, you might help them think of creative ways of handling the anxiety – even imagining a special, private, ‘safe’ place (real or imaginary) to which he can retreat to regain calmness.
Failure to use the chosen way of coping shouldn’t be allowed to discourage progress. Constantly boost the child by encouraging daily practice and perseverance, and point out to them any small steps they may have made in overcoming the effects of their anxiety.
Children will experience anxiety uniquely and also react in her own individual way. Many children do find it calming to be able to describe their anxiety, what they think is causing it and its effect on them. For this reason, adults should listen carefully and try not to make any judgements. Telling a child that he ‘doesn’t have to feel anxious’ and that his fear is ‘not real’ is not helpful. Being a good listener and showing the child that you understand her fears and feelings is called ‘reflective listening’ and is a powerful helping tool.
With anxiety being so rife amongst our younger population, it may not always be possible to help the child yourself. Parents and teachers should be on the lookout for signs of anxiety and, if need be, look for help for the child.
Here is a list of 10 signs that your child is at risk of anxiety:
- Perfectionism/rigid, inflexible behaviour
- Constant meltdowns
- Withdrawal (from activities and/or interactions)
- Excessive or unusual procrastination
- Sleep problems
- Excessive defiance
- Disturbance of eating habits
Don’t overlook the possibility of anxiety playing a role in your child’s school performance. It could be one of the reasons for a child failing to thrive at school.
From: Dacey, J.S. & Fiore, L.B. Your anxious child. Published by Jossey-Bass.
From virtually the moment of conception, human genes dictate that we will move. The earliest movements we make are not deliberate but are automatic reflexes. These ‘primitive’ reflex movements are truly magic because they help develop the brain.
Each time you feel the baby moving inside your uterus, you can celebrate, knowing that those movements are laying down the patterns of neural pathways that serve to connect the different brain areas. These are the pathways that are vital for learning, behaving appropriately, forming healthy relationships with the people in our lives and enjoying emotional well-being.
They also help develop ability to control the body, muscle tone, good integration of information coming in from the different senses and survive the early months of life.
At birth, our brains are far from completely developed so we depend on primitive reflexes to help us enter the world and then keep us alive. For example, the Moro reflex is a reaction to being startled. This reflex produces cortisol and adrenaline to help activate the birth process. Then the Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) comes into play, helping the foetus twist down the birth canal during a normal birth. After we are delivered, the Moro reflex triggers our first breath and permits us to straighten out after months spent in the foetal position in the uterus.
After birth, the sucking reflex allows the mouth to take in nourishment and swallow, while many others are present to help in other ways. Slowly, these early reflexes are integrated as new ones take their place. Each reflex appears in a crucial time, does its important job and is then replaced in order for higher development to happen. Ultimately, primitive reflexes are replaced by so-called postural reflexes which allow us to crawl and then finally to walk.
Problems can be experienced later on if these primitive reflexes are not absorbed or integrated. Retained reflexes can cause emotional problems, timidity and fearfulness, attention problems and learning difficulties, depression, sensory disorders, lack of confidence, tantrums, bedwetting, fidgeting, thumb sucking and many of the challenges often seen in children. Unfortunately, children with learning, behavioural and emotional issues often fail to be helped. This is because the symptoms they show are treated, rather than being helped to overcome the underlying causes of their problems.
There are many reasons for reflexes to remain present and not be integrated. Included in these are the diet and general health and emotional well-being of the mother during pregnancy. Traumatic birth events including Caesarean birth and the use of instruments can interfere with amongst others, the Moro reflex. This has the domino effect of interfering with the integration of all the reflexes that should follow, setting up glitches in brain development that can persist for years.
When several unintegrated reflexes persist, normal tasks that are taken for granted by most of us become difficult if not impossible. When children experience sensory integration disorders, vision and listening challenges, extreme shyness and lack of confidence, ADHD, learning challenges and developmental delays, it is time to look for help. Reading and writing difficulties, language and speech delays, disorganisation, fidgeting and lack of focus all may be signposts to the need for reflex integration.
The good news is that it is not difficult to integrate reflexes by helping the child with a movement programme. Certain movements replicate the earlier movements that somehow failed to achieve reflex development or integration, so by showing a child different movements, we give the brain a second chance to reorganise those all-important networks needed for efficient functioning.
Movement is magic! Even more magical are the improvements seen in children when they are given the chance to overcome early setbacks in their development.
If you suspect that a child may have unwarranted challenges in coping with home and school demands, you should seriously consider a neurodevelopmental assessment.
Here’s a quote from Carl Zuckmayer that might be worth passing on to your children. It carries a lot of truth:
One half of life is luck; the other half is discipline – and that’s the important half, for without discipline, you will not know what to do with your luck.
Sometimes people misunderstand the difference between discipline and punishment, believing them to have the same meaning. Not so. Discipline refers to the training adults give to youngsters to bring about self-control. Consistent, gentle discipline causes life-long changes in the mind and character of children. Punishment is meant to cause pain or discomfort for breaking rules. Typically children are verbally scolded, sent into time out, relieved of toys or special privileges (e.g. TV time) or even given physical hidings or smacks.
Punishment can, of course, form part of disciplining but it should never be the only way that parents use to correct wrongdoing.
Here are some ways of disciplining children
- Ignore unacceptable behaviour.This can be useful and effective for many problem behaviours such as sulking, whining, interrupting, begging for treats, or insulting authority figures (parents/teachers). There are situations where you cannot ignore the child, such as when they are physically hurt. Don’t try to ignore behaviour if you are truly angry inside because children will pick up on your fury and know their behaviour has had the desired result. When you ignore, you should try to avoid paying attention to behaviours that you have clearly explained as being unacceptable.
- Setting boundaries. Children should have set limits that are strictly enforced with patience and firmness.
- Give simple orders. Keep your instructions simple, clear and brief. Children are confused if too much detail is given.Also try to give instructions one at a time rather than a whole list of them. When you speak to your children, look at them and don’t call out orders from a distance. If you have any doubt as to whether a child has understood your instructions, ask them to repeat them to you.
- Spend time with your children.Emotional development depends on the love and attention of parents. This means interacting with your children on their level. Reading the newspaper or watching TV doesn’t count as ‘quality time.’
- Give choices within limits. Children want and need to feel some control.Having some positive control helps them be independent and confident. Rather than always giving orders, set limits instead. Parents can also involve children in determining the disciplinary process and setting consequences (punishments). This helps development of independence and cooperation.
- Help children understand consequences, which are the results of choices the children make.There are two kinds of consequences: natural and logical. Natural consequences just happen. For example, if children do not eat, they get hungry. Logical consequences is created by parents, so a child who purposely hits his sister with his new toy will have to give it up.
- Be consistent.Always treat the same behaviour the same way, no matter the place or time. The more consistent you are, the more effective disciplining will be. Parents need especially to stay consistent in public, which is usually the most difficult and unpleasant. Don’t worry about what others are thinking but simply persist in maintaining the limits that are important to you. For example, if a child misbehaves in a restaurant, the child should be taken outside for a while. She can return after a while but don’t keep food for her. Although unpleasant, missing her food treat helps to teach her the limits.
- Notice good behaviour.Be sure to catch your child being good and obeying limits. Let them know you approve by positive words and actions.
The source of this information was based on the book ‘Help your child to cope’ by Dr Cai Yiming & Dr Daniel Fung.