Helping anxious children



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[1]

  • 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
  • Aggression
  • Withdrawal (from activities and/or interactions)
  • Excessive or unusual procrastination
  • Sleep problems
  • Excessive defiance
  • Disturbance of eating habits
  • Irritability/tantrums
  • Over-clinginess

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. 

 [1]From: Dacey, J.S. & Fiore, L.B. Your anxious child. Published by Jossey-Bass.

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