Expert Opinion

Children and anxiety with Amanda Abel

What are the signs that your child might be experiencing anxiety? How do you differentiate it from a “normal” level of stress?

Anxiety can certainly be helpful at times, but when it starts to interfere with daily activities it becomes unhealthy. As babies and children develop, they will experience a normal range of age-appropriate anxieties. Babies and toddlers might find strangers scary – as well as separating from their parents and caregivers. Fear of the dark is common in pre-schoolers and school-aged children tend to let their imaginations run wild leading to fears of the supernatural sort (ghosts etc.). As school-aged children get older, they might start to fear ‘doing a bad job’ of their schoolwork, criticism, and tests. Typically, as children grow older, their worries and fears become less concrete and show their increased understanding of the world around them.

Your young child might show signs of anxiety through their behaviour, emotions and through their physical presentation such as complaints of illness and body movements like tics. Emotionally you might see increased sensitivity, irritability, anger, and aggression. Frequent meltdowns, changes in eating and sleeping, repetitive behaviours and refusal to attend preschool/school etc. are some more common behavioural signs of anxiety.

For most children, anxiety comes and goes quite quickly and is not a problem. But for some it can start to prevent them from engaging in their daily activities, in which case it is recommended to seek professional help – your GP or paediatrician can point you in the right direction of a paediatric/child psychologist.

What steps should I take if I feel like my child is experiencing anxiety? What are some healthy ways to handle anxiety in children?

Increasing structure and predictability is a great first step, this can help prevent and reduce anxiety in children. So, bedtime routines, morning routines, general predictability – these are all ways that your child can have a clear understanding of the expectations and boundaries.

One of the things about anxiety and kids, is that these big scary feelings are a bit unknown – they don’t know what it means to feel this way and why they are feeling this sense of dread or worry. Naturally then, they don’t know what to do about it. And this all makes the whole situation even scarier! So I recommend parents acknowledge and validate their child’s feelings by saying something like “I can see you’re feeling worried,it’s okay to feel that way”. This can normalise your child’s experience, and prevent them from feeling guilty or ashamed for having these very normal feelings.

My child finds new experiences incredibly stressful – what are some things that I can do to challenge this? Or, more accurately, improve their relationship with new things?

Many children find new experiences tricky. It can help to try to identify what it is about these experiences that are fearful for your child. And before you start any sort of exposure to such situations, you must ensure that your child has the skills to regulate themselves (or be co-regulated by you) before you put them in the situation. So, teach your child some basic regulation skills like breathing, or seeking help from a trusted adult.

But the biggest help is likely to be preparation – preparing your child for the new experience in a fun and meaningful way. Playing games, role playing, getting out the dolls house – all of these activities can help you demonstrate the new experience which can make it less scary for your child. You could also show your child how to use some of their regulation skills in these situations by modelling deep breathing for example with a soft toy.

I think that school/day-care/kinder might be stressing out my child – how can I improve this relationship?

Often I find children feel worried or anxious about going to school or child care etc., because they don’t feel confident out in the ‘big world’ without their parents or caregivers. While this can show a lovely bond between you and your child, it can make it hard for them to be competent in situations without you. So, I suggest start working on this at home by giving your child independence and a sense of competency while under your watchful eye (think: helping with chores like putting washing in the machine, tidying up toys etc.) and extend them to things like paying for their babyccino at the cafe or saying hello to the cashier at the supermarket.

Helping your child to feel more comfortable at their day-care or educational setting can be encouraged by increasing their sense of social connectedness with their peers – arrange some play dates with children they attend with.

My child has had a bad experience at school/kinder previously – what are some positive ways forward? How do I help them overcome the fear of it happening again?

While it can be confronting as a parent to see our child struggling, it can provide an opportunity for learning. Not feeding the drama and worry is going to be your first step, along with normalising your child’s experience and providing them with the skill set to manage the situation if it were to happen again. Whether the negative experience was social (being hurt by another child) or related to being reprimanded, it can help for your child to know that despite this experience, they are in safe hands. Setting aside some time for your child to speak with their educator to express their worries and hear some reassuring words can be worthwhile. Role playing the situation to help the child process what has happened, and perhaps creating some alternative “endings to the story” is also a helpful tool.

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
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