Anxiety in Children and Teen’s
Anxiety is a normal emotion and is essential for human survival. It can help us prepare for real danger like running into a wild animal, can help us to perform our best, motivate us to study for an exam, or practice before a big game. When we experience anxiety it sets off our flight-fight-freeze response and prepares our body to react. For example, our heart beats faster to bump blood to our muscles so we can run faster. This is a normal part of our bodies response system and although anxiety is uncomfortable, it will eventually decrease. Small amounts of anxiety in certain situations can be useful and certain fears are more common at different ages. For example, it’s normal for a young child to be afraid of the dark and for teens to experience some anxiety around peers. However, if your child is worrying most of the time, avoiding fun activities, or refusing to go to school because they are scared or worried, then anxiety might be a problem.
Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety is a physical response and is felt in the body. Often when a child is anxious, they won’t recognize that they are feeling nervous or scared, but will say that they feel sick or have a tummy ache. Teenagers might frequently complain of headaches, chest pain, or sore muscles. Some common examples of the physical systems of anxiety are: stomach pain or nausea, digestive issues, headaches, rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, shaking, sweating, feeling dizzy, feeling hot or cold, and feeling light headed.
One of the most common behaviours of anxious kids is avoidance. This can be not wanting to go to certain places or do certain activities that make them feel anxious. Common examples of avoidance are not raising their hand in class, not wanting to hang out with other kids, not attending sleepovers, not wanting to attend school, and refusing to participate in sports or other activities. When there is real danger avoidance is helpful like leaving an unsafe situation, but in situations where there is no real danger avoidance prevents kids from learning how to cope with a challenging situation and can keep them from engaging in age appropriate activities.
Anxious kids will worry about current situations or future events. They tend to worry more and in a more extreme way then peers. These worries can range from reasonable like failing a test to highly unlikely like getting hit by lightning. They might expect the worse thing to happen most of the time, generate extreme conclusions form little information, having trouble falling or staying asleep because they are worrying so much.
Anxious children and teens also tend to be far more dependent on their parents then their same aged peers and might seek reassurance for things that might seem unnecessary. It’s normal for kids to ask parents questions when learning something new, or seek comfort when they are scared or unsure. However, anxious children will often ask the same questions over and over and ask for comfort in non-threatening situations. They may also ask parent to do things for them or ask parents to be available if something goes wrong, even if the situation is unlikely.
Types of Anxiety
There are several different types of anxiety disorders including generalized anxiety disorder-where kids worry almost every day about lots of different things. Those with generalized anxiety disorder will worry about things that aren’t usual to stress. Separation anxiety-when kids don’t outgrow their fear of being separated from parents. They may feel very stressed when they are away from apparent and may miss school, sleepovers, play dates or other activities because of it. Social anxiety disorder- when kids feel worried about what others will think about them. They don’t like to be the center of attention and they don’t want people to notice them. This can cause kids to avoid school and they may have a difficult time making friends. Another type of anxiety is a specific phobia-an extreme, long lasting fear of something specific. It’s normal for kids to feel afraid of the dark, storms, or monsters. However, with phobia kids have an intense fear of things like needles, people in costumes, or animals and they will try to avoid going to places where they might encounter whatever it is that they are scared of.
What Causes Anxiety?
There are several different factors that can play a role in the development of the over active fight or flight response that occurs with anxiety disorders. These include genetics- if anxiety runs in your family, it is more likely that your child will develop anxiety as well, brain chemistry- how the neurotransmitters in our brain work, life situations-stressful events in one’s life such as loss, illness, death, or experiencing violence, and learned behaviours- growing up around others who are anxious can lead to children developing these behaviours themselves.
How Can I Help My Child?
Be patient with them. Anxiety can be confusing for children and they may not understand why they are feeling worried. Help your children learn about feelings and allow them to talk to you about what they’re feeling. You may need to help them talk through their worries and rationalize their fears. Practicing mindfulness skills with your child such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation can give them the skills to calm themselves down in stressful situations. Encourage them to take small steps forward if they are experiencing anxiety and set realistic goals for them. Try not to allow them to avoid what is making them worried as avoidance will make anxiety grow in the long run. Talk to your child’s doctor about the symptoms that they are experiencing, they may have additional suggestions on how to help your child, and they can rule out any other health problems that may be causing symptoms. If anxiety is negatively affecting your child’s day to day life you might consider setting up an appointment with a counsellor who can teaching them strategies and coping skills to deal with their anxiety.
Most kids love playing with technology (phones, iPads, videogames, computers, etc.) and with screens basically everywhere controlling your child’s screen time can be a challenge. Too much screen time for children has been linked to lower academic preformance, obesity, sleep irregularity, behavioral problems, and challenges with social skills. However, these devices are not going anywhere anytime soon, so it’s important that we teach our kids to use them in healthy balanced ways.
Quality Screen Time
Limited amounts of screen time can be okay for your child if you are aware of what they are using and if it is being used in a safe, engaging way. Preview programs, games and apps before you let your child watch or play them to ensure that they are appropriate, better yet, watch or play them with your child. Look for interactive apps that engage your child, rather than those that just require staring at the screen. It can also be beneficial to use parental controls to block or filter internet content and to make sure your child is close by during screen time so that you can supervise his or her activities. Finally, ask your child regularly what games and apps they use and ask them questions about what they are using.
Teens and Screens
It’s estimated that teens spend about 9 hours a day using media technology, most of this being spent on social media. Social media has been linked to a number of negative consequences including feeling lonely and isolated, low self-esteem, and a lack of social skills. Although there are some upsides to social media, it can make socialization easier and more immediate for teens and teens can find support and friendship through social media that they might otherwise not have. The key is to help teens balance social media with real life friendships. Talk to your teens about social media and make sure that they understand how to be safe online. It’s also a good idea to keep up to date on what type of apps your teen uses. Ask them what is popular, what they like to use, and get them to show you the apps that they are using. It may be beneficial to set rules around your teen keeping their phones or iPad in their rooms at night to ensure that they are getting a quality nights sleep and aren’t stating up late playing games, or scrolling through Instagram.
Banning your kids from technology altogether isn’t realistic so it’s important to find balance between technology and other aspects of life. Set rules around how much screen time your child has, where they can use their devices and what types of media they can access. Help your children to find balance between screen time, physical activity, extra-curricular activities, school work, socializing (in real life), and sleep. Try to set reasonable limits on how much screen time your child can have daily or weekly. No more than 2 hours of screen time per day might be a good guideline for elementary aged children, but you can create your own guidelines based on your family’s needs.
What Parents Can Do
The best thing that parents can do is to set a good example of what healthy technology use looks like. Most of us spend way too much time on our phones and kids can be used to seeing us looking at our own screens all day. Try to limit your own screen time and find your own balance for technology use. It might be beneficial to set technology free zones in the house (the kitchen) and technology free times (an hour before bedtime) and follow these rules yourself. If you create rules around screen time in your home, encourage your kids to stick to these and enforce them the best that you can.
Activities to Beat the Winter Blues
Often as the winter months drag on, we might feel more lethargic, be more irritable, and feel down. This is often our bodies way of responding to the darker, colder days. This true for kids as well as adults, I know that I have a much harder time getting out of bed in the morning this time of year when it’s dark and cold outside. During the winter, it can be easy for kids to get stuck in a rut of sitting on the couch watching tv or playing video games for hours on end. The lack of sunlight, decrease in physical activity and an increase in high carb sugar loaded food (Christmas cookies, chocolate, etc.) can have a negative impact on our mental health. Here are some tips for supporting your child’s physical and mental health and beating the winter blues this holiday season.
Sunlight gives vitamin D which releases serotonin in our brains which helps us regulate our emotions and is linked to feeling happy. Spending time outdoors is also thought to help relieve stress and anxiety in children and adults alike by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain. So get your kids off the couch bundle them up and send them outside! There are countless ways for kids and families to have fun outdoors during the winter. Here’s a few ideas:
· Have a snowball fight
· Build a snow man
· Go skating at an outdoor rink
· Go sledding
· Enjoy a winter picnic
· Go for a winter walk or hike
· Have a winter campfire
Have Family Fun Indoors
Sometimes it’s just too cold to go outside. It can be difficult to come up with ideas for fun things to do when you’re stuck at home due to cold weather. There are still lots of ways to have fun indoors that don’t require leaving the house. However, you start to get cabin fever there are plenty of options for low cost indoor activities in the community. Here’s some ideas:
· Play board games together as a family
· Make Christmas cards to give to family and friends
· Make a craft
· Go bowling
· Cook or bake together
· Visit the library
· Have a family movie night compete with hot chocolate
· Go swimming
To little sunlight and exercise can have a negative effect on our mental and physical well-being. Too much screen time can also have a negative effect on your child’s sleep, behavior, and mood (more on this in a future Helpful Hint). In the winter it can be especially hard to turn off the tv or put down the
tablet because we can feel like we lack the energy to do anything else or that there’s nothing else to do. Try to set limits on how much screen time your child has. Less than 2 hours of screen time a day for children 5 and older is a good guideline. Try to model this behavior for your kids as well as too much electronic use can have a negative impact on adults as well. Here are some activities to get your child to put down their device or shut off their video game:
· Encourage them to read or read a book with them
· Help them set up a play date or encourage hangout with friends
· Play with their favourite toys with them
· Encourage them to colour or make art
· Have them help out with chores around the house
Happy Holidays! I look forward to seeing everyone in the New Year!