Mental wellness is one of the most important aspects of health, but unfortunately it is also one of the most overlooked. Contrary to common preconceptions, mental disorders are real health problems that need just as much attention as physical ailments. Anxiety is one of the more prevalent disorders in children and adolescents. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America “Anxiety disorders affect 25.1% of children between 13 and 18 years old.” Anxiety can start at a young age and if unchecked, it can develop into something more serious.
As a parent, you know your child best and there are warning signs the National Institute of Mental Health recommends parents watch for. In young children some behaviors include: frequent tantrums/ irritability, constantly talking about their worries, unstable sleep schedule and difficulty making friends. Adolescents may lose interest in activities they previously enjoyed, avoiding family and friends, and engaging in risky behavior such as excessive drugs and alcohol.
If parents notice these behaviors, it is necessary to be proactive and have a conversation with your child about their mental health and their feelings. During this conversation it’s important to actively listen, be straightforward and be sensitive. The next step would be to find appropriate care for one’s child. To do this, one can reach out to the child’s primary care physician to gauge if it is necessary to see a specialist.
There are also techniques parents can do to try to manage their child’s anxiety.
Many concerns stemmed from anxiety disorders may seem completely unreasonable to a normal person - for example, the fear of thunder and lighting, separating from loved ones and overthinking terrible consequences. Though they may seem extreme, it is important to allow one’s child to feel these things and telling them so. After reassurance, one can move on to rationalizing their fears, saying how unlikely it is for these awful things to happen and that everything will be okay.
Children are very perceptive and empathetic.They may often look to their caretakers for their reactions to new situations specifically. As the caretaker, try to show that you are confident in the situation, show calmness that everything is “okay” and will be resolved.
Slowly but steadily exposing one’s child to what they are anxious about, demonstrates to them that they can overcome their anxieties. For example, if they are anxious about being separated from their parents while their parents are at work, start by allowing them to make phone calls to their parents. Then start decreasing that number and as they realize that they are safe and okay without their parents, the number of calls will naturally decrease.
The path to overcoming mental illnesses, like anxiety, is to take time and patience. It is a marathon, not a sprint. The process is long, but the acknowledgment of a child’s mental state and the eagerness to learn is already a great first step. And in the long term being proactive about anxiety early on will vastly improve you and your child’s quality of life.
Please check the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Institute of Mental Health.