Understanding
Anxiety in Children

Anxiety in children affects as many as 6 million kids and in a society filled with school shootings and daily violence, it is certainly on the rise.  In fact, 7 out of 10 teens report anxiety to be a major problem among their peers. Anxiety is defined as intense agitation filled with tension and dread. It is not the same for each person but those who suffer from anxiety tend to experience similar physical and emotional characteristics.

 Children suffering from an anxiety disorders usually demonstrate the following symptoms:

  • Shallow breathing and hyperventilation
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Pounding heartbeat or sweating
  • Stomach ache, diarrhea or vomiting
  • Rush of adrenaline
  • Extreme agitation
  • Avoidance of situations
  • Crying
  • Anger
  • Hives, rashes or skin problems.
  • Fatigue, problems falling asleep or difficulty getting back to sleep.
  • Loss of concentration

Anxiety in children is not the same thing as being afraid. Fear is specific and definable. For example, a child experiencing fear may say, “I’m afraid of the dark.” Anxiety is vague, non-specific and intangible. A child experiencing anxiety may say, “I’m afraid” but not know exactly what they are afraid of. A child with anxiety has a mind full of  doubt and “what if's.”

Anxiety in children becomes a problem when it causes emotional pain and begins to disrupt your child’s ability to function in daily life. This includes their ability to go to school, refusal to go to school, lack of friends, limited social growth and underachievement.

 

CAUSES:

No one is really sure what causes anxiety in children. However, the answer usually lies within one of three theories.

1.  Heredity: Anxiety disorders tend to run in families. The cause may be biological, genetic or environmental.

2.  Biology: People who experience anxiety may have a chemical imbalance in the brain that results in the brain sending faulty messages that there is a danger or threat. 

3.  Personality Type: Children with anxiety tend to have a personality that is creative, imaginative and they tend to have vivid mental images. They also tend to be perfectionists. It's possible that the attempt to achieve unrealistic goals and a focus on minor mistakes can result in a perpetual state of anxiousness.

SOLUTIONS:

Children with anxiety require education. If your child is experiencing anxiety, it is important not to yell, tease or demean them for their anxious thoughts and behaviors. Also, if you yourself are outwardly anxious, your behavior feed into your child’s anxiety and perpetuate the problem.

So, what can you do?

  • Educate yourself on anxiety disorders: There are numerous websites and books available on childhood anxiety. Make sure you understand as much about the problem as possible.
  • Communicate and listen: Help your child open up about their feelings, fears and worries. Role play scenarios so your child can experience the end result of the “what if” playing in their head and experience the outcome in a safe place.
  • Show empathy: Don’t try to fix the problem, instead be supportive. There is a fine line between being supportive and co-dependent. It is easy for your child's anxiety to become your own as we have a natural desire to protect out children from discomfort. However, unless they experience the discomfort themselves and realize nothing truly "terrible" occurred, the feelings will persist.
  • Teach problem solving techniques. Children suffering from anxiety feel comfort when they believe they have some control over the situation.
  • Learn relaxation techniques: One of the most effective and simplest strategies to combat anxiety is by practicing belly breathing and meditation. Belly breathing eliminates shallow chest breathing and triggers the vagus nerve which is a natural way to relax the body. Simply put, belly breathing forces your body into a state of relaxation. Training your child in belly breathing can be a simple way to ward off a full fledged anxiety attack.  Mediation and muscle relaxation is also a great way to get the body out of the fight or flight mode and back to normal.  There are many apps out there that offer guided meditation and relaxation, some free of charge.
  • Exercise:  Along with relaxation, exercise helps the body re-set itself and get out of the "flight or fight" mode. Getting the heart rate up every day is vital for children with anxiety. Walking hills or stairs, running in place, bouncing on a trampoline or just a quick bike ride around the block will all help alleviate anxiety symptoms. 

ANXIETY in CHILDREN and SPECIAL EDUCATION:

Children in special education and those with disabilities may feel different from other children. This can result in teasing, bullying and isolation.  It is important to have open discussions with your child about their condition. Use words like strengths and limitations when discussing their IEP goals. When it comes to school activities, allow your child to be a part of the decision making process which will help empower them and increase self esteem.

A child who has anxiety issues in addition to a learning disability should have social and emotional goals included in their IEP along with their academic goals. These may include:

  • Time with a school psychologist
  • Communication goals 
  • Goals that target specific behavioral modifications.

Examples of these include asking the teacher three questions a day or having lunch with a friend. Remember the IEP does not have to focus only on your child’s academic challenges.

If your child does not have one of the 13 qualifying conditions needed for special education as identified by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and is only experiencing anxiety issues, they may not qualify for special education. Anxiety in children alone is not considered a qualifying condition unless it is severe enough to warrant the label of Other Health Impaired.

However, anxiety in children is covered under Section 504 of the American Disabilities Act and your child can receive modifications and accommodations in their classroom through a 504 plan. Examples of accommodations include extra time on tests, taking exams in an alternative setting, alternative homework assignments or adjustments in their school day. Another common modification is for them to have a special hall pass to a safe place in case they experience a panic attack during the school day.

If your child is experiencing anxiety and it is affecting their performance in school, you should schedule a meeting with your school’s Student Study Team (SST). Here, the team can evaluate your child’s situation and make a recommendation for school success.