You know the feeling…. anxiety…. we’ve all had it. The jittery nerves and sweaty palms you might get just before doing something challenging or new. Most of the time, we pluck up our courage and do these things anyway because we know that it will all be fine once we finish. What if we didn’t finish though? What if we were constantly in this horrible state of anxiety? On top of that, what if we didn’t understand what anxiety was? All that we knew was that we feel horrible all the time. Wouldn’t that be awful?
That is what generalized anxiety disorder can feel like for children.
Generalized anxiety disorder (also known as GAD) in children is essentially the same as GAD in adults. GAD in children involves an almost constant state of worry and anxiety which is excessive and difficult to control. This worry is coupled with physical symptoms of anxiety (such as muscle tension, difficulty in concentrating and sleeping, and nausea and headaches). This often leads to the child trying to avoid anything that might cause them anxiety. “Someone with illness anxiety disorder may [believe] they have a life-threatening illness…. [People with] GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), or OCD may have recurrent intrusive thoughts about their biggest fears coming true. It is similar to experiencing one’s worst nightmare on loop in someone’s mind,” said Janina Scarlet, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist
So how is GAD different in children compared to adults?
As children seldom have a good understanding of anxiety until an older age, they can find it difficult to express what they are going through when experiencing this type of worry. One consequence of this is that they might seem very interested in adult concerns — asking a lot of questions and maybe even listening to conversations. This is a way for them to seek reassurance and try to stop their worries. They do this by finding out all the information to assure themselves that everything is going to be okay. Due to the nature of the disorder, by seeking reassurance, they are avoiding the worry. This just makes it even stronger.
Another difference in children is that they often haven’t learned the connections between anxiety and some of the physical symptoms it can cause. They tend to complain of feeling sick or unwell frequently. This will likely coincide with times when their anxiety is higher such as being dropped off at school or answering questions in class. A healthy child frequently complaining of restlessness, difficulty sleeping and upset stomach or headaches could be an indication of GAD (but does not necessarily mean a diagnosis in itself). Not only do children with GAD experience these physical symptoms, they are also likely to experience low self-confidence and be quite self-critical and shy. “When it creates chronically anxious thoughts, a depressed attitude, or feelings of being immobilized,” says Carla Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist.
So how can I help a child with GAD?
The first step is to see a professional to make sure that you are actually dealing with GAD and not just everyday worry or something else altogether. If it is GAD, there are different psychological treatments that a qualified professional can provide to help educate your child about anxiety and manage their worries. Contact your GP to find out how to access a psychologist or psychiatrist and they can help you with this.
Is there anything I can do myself as a parent?
Yes, there are certainly some things that you can do:
- First, educate them about anxiety and how it works. Ensure that they know it is a natural thing and they don’t need to be afraid of it. This way, when they do begin to feel sick due to worry, they can understand the mechanisms behind it.
- Next, help them to understand that their level of worry is excessive (as they are often not aware of this). Be very careful on how you approach this as you don’t want them blaming themselves. Perhaps, you could suggest that their brain is tricking them, or speak about an imaginary “bully” in their minds that brings up these worrying thoughts. This helps them to separate it from themselves and reduces any feelings of self-blame. It also provides an opportunity to look at the thoughts. See if this works or not and find more helpful ways to think about their concerns.
- Finally, tone down the reassurance. Of course, we all want to make kids feel better. Who’s not a sucker for a cute kid that just needs to be told: “everything is going to be okay”? Unfortunately, this doesn’t give them the tools to manage the worry themselves which makes it very hard when we’re not there. Try explaining this to your child and agreeing together to cut down on the reassurance. One way to do this is to set up a “worry time” each day (15 minutes or so) when they can bring you their worries to talk about. After that allotted time, they can’t talk about their worries outside of this window. Try doing this gradually and couple it with teaching them some relaxation methods as it can be quite upsetting for them to lose this reassurance suddenly. After some time, this helps them to learn to “sit with” the worry and begin to get used to it. This will eventually make the worry less powerful and upsetting.
Congratulations on being an attentive and supportive parent and being willing to help your child conquer their worry! Hopefully, you found this information helpful. Just remember “It’s a natural human emotion; yet unlike the other emotions, when someone feels anxious, we try to tell them to relax, to push down the anxiety and not feel it,” says Donna B. Pincus, Ph.D.