"Anxiety is a diffused, subjective sense of worry, apprehension, distress and fear,” explains Sangeetha Madhu, a clinical psychologist. It may involve worrying about something in the future (unlike fear which is an immediate reaction to a definite situation) and if left untreated can lead to low self-esteem, deficient interpersonal skills, adjustment difficulties, problems with making decisions, problems in concentration and sometimes even lead to depression.
What causes anxiety?
Anxiety can be genetic, or it can occur due to biological, medical and psychological reasons. Parenting attitudes and child-rearing practices are some of the key reasons for anxiety in children, say psychologists.
Anxious parents have anxious children
Children of a nervous, anxious parent are most likely to be nervous. Points out Professor V Jayanthini, Head, Child Guidance Clinic, Institute of Child Health in Chennai, “A parent, anxious by nature can pass on this attribute to her child. Parental attitudes like an authoritarian father or mother can also cause anxiety.” Psychologists believe that the parents of today need more intervention than the child and need to relax.
To drive home this point, Sangeetha Madhu narrates the case of a 14-year old student in Chennai who played a competitive sport. He was constantly losing in tournaments against juniors not considered to be as good as him. The same teenager always won during practice sessions.
After a few counseling sessions, Sangeetha realised that the boy felt extremely pressurised by his parents. His parents’ anxiety about his performance in the matches made him nervous and he had developed a block in his mind. The fear and anxiety of ‘what if I lose’ filled his mind and he ended up losing in tournaments. She spoke to the parents and convinced them that they had to ease the pressure on the child if they wanted him to win.
Negative thinking and other causes
When a child is always habituated to thinking negatively this can stir up anxiety. Not learning appropriate skills, inability to make friends, early childhood experiences, unrealistic expectations are other causes to create anxiety in a child.
When anxiety crosses bounds
Experts say that 9 to 13 fears are permissible for a child of four years and above. She can be afraid of the dark at age 6. But if she cannot sleep alone at age 14, there is a problem. Similarly, a child can be anxious before exams, but if she blanks out and refuses to sit for the same, there is an issue.
Fear of ghosts, animals, insects, doctors and injections, teachers and class recitals are all part of the package of childhood anxieties. Children do out grow many of them. If this does not happen, prolonged anxiety often carted to adulthood takes a toll on health. It hampers the quality of life. It could lead to phobias and depression.
Signs of anxiety
If children are anxious beyond the normal limits, they will frequently complain of headaches or nausea and be irritable, jittery or short-tempered. They would suffer from disturbed sleep, perform poorly in school or even refuse to attend school.
Says Jayanthini, “an anxious child can be restless, fidgety, sensitive, tensed up, cry for trivial reasons and constantly seek reassurance.”
She cites the case of a case of the six-year-old boy who refused to let his father out of his sight. He would even refuse to attend school because of this. At home, alone with his mother, he would telephone his father every half an hour to find out if he was alright.
The child was brought to a psychiatrist and after many sessions the reason for his excessive anxiety was discovered. It involved a train accident which had occurred in Kerala when his father was there on work a few months earlier. The family suspected that the father might have been involved in the accident. There was panic and pandemonium in the house for a while. This palpable fear permeating the house was transferred to the child and it remained with him.
Handling anxious children
Empathise. Parents should first learn to empathise rather than worry unduly that something is wrong with their child. They should not push the child to do something he does not want to do.
Acknowledge the child’s anxiety. Help her face and tackle it. Some shared activity takes her mind away from it. Listen to the child, encourage her efforts, provide reward and praise to improve the child’s self-esteem.
Counselling and medication. If the problem is severe, help should be sought from a mental health professional.
Bringing up a composed and balanced child
Says Dr Emma R Gonsalvez, a senior psychological consultant and psychotherapist, “I would advise parents to be in the Now, help children in what they are doing Now and not worry about the future. It is sad when children break down trying to meet the unfulfilled dreams of the parent.”
“Parents should see what their child is capable of and tap his resources within. They can ask: Was this your best? It helps if parents encourage the child to be the best he can be’. Ultimately, unconditional love works like magic and can relax a child like nothing else.”
Sangeetha Madhu suggests that parents need to raise children with values and vision. They need to build in the child:
- A sense of security in early childhood
- A sense of belonging, that results in self-assurance.
- A positive self-image that results in self-confidence.
- A sense of purpose in life, a “who am I” in the larger scheme of things
- Don’t give your child excessive reassurance
- Don’t be too involved
- Don’t allow your child to avoid age appropriate responsibilities
- Don’t become impatient with your child
- Reward brave and non-anxious behavior
- Prompt your child to cope constructively
- Be a brave and non-anxious parent yourself
- Be supportive
Check it out
Book: Helping your anxious child, a step-by-step guide for parents, Dr Ronald M Rapee and others.