In third grade, my daughter developed a fear of storms. This wasn’t just a get in the basement, there’s a storm coming fear. It was full-blown anxiety that caused her to call home from school if there were ominous clouds in the sky, miss outdoor soccer games if it was too windy and suffer from a myriad of physical ailments each night before bed.
I thought I could just help her through it with a little love and TLC, but it required a change in her thought patterns and some coping tools that were beyond my mom experience. I sought the help of a licensed therapist, and she learned many tools to help her through the storms.
Through this experience, we learned that anxiety is real and can be effectively treated to help kids live their normal lives again.
I learned that anxiety is common among children, and often a few visits to a therapist can make a huge difference.
Storms, bullying and being embarrassed in front of peers are common fears among children and teens.
And if those fears start to interfere with daily life or cause mental symptoms, like racing thoughts or agitation, or physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, nail biting or difficulty sleeping, it may be considered anxiety.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is one of the most common disorders in America today. It is more likely to be seen in females than in males, and it affects one in eight children, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Teresa Benjamin, a farmer’s wife and mom of three, is a licensed independent mental health therapist in south-central Nebraska and has treated children and adults for almost 20 years. Many of these clients, between the ages of 9 and 65 (both male and female) have been treated for anxiety. She recently has seen an increase in clients with anxiety between the ages of 9 and 12.
“It appears to me that a possible reason for this could be that children reach the age where they understand the information they have studied in school, heard throughout their lives, or have seen on social media could become actual realities, like war, natural disasters and storms,” Teresa said.
She said there is usually an underlying fear in the anxiety.
“For example, if you have anxiety about going to the doctor, the underlying fear could be that you are afraid of a terminal diagnosis, or getting a shot,” she said. “If you have anxiety about elevators, you could be afraid of getting stuck in small spaces. If you have anxiety about driving on the interstate, the underlying fear could be getting in a crash.”
Common fears that can create anxiety for different age groups are:
- Younger children: being afraid of the dark, parents dying or leaving and large crowds.
- Middle school children: sitting alone at lunchtime, bullying, tornadoes, fires and being kidnapped.
- High school students: being rejected, cyberbullying, being embarrassed, grades, sports and preparing for college.
Teresa said anyone suffering from anxiety may report physical and/or mental forms of anxiety either in mild or more severe forms.
Physical anxiety may include headaches, shakiness, an imaginary lump in the throat, stomach aches, difficulty sleeping, panic attacks, fidgeting, nail biting and picking.
Mental anxiety can occur as racing thoughts, self-harm thoughts, negative thoughts, obsessions, neediness and agitation.
Teresa offered the following tips in relating to anyone suffering from anxiety:
- Never belittle or demean the anxious behavior or fear.
- Reassure yourself or your child that there is help available, that anxiety is common, you are not alone or the only one with anxiety, and having anxiety does not mean you are going crazy.
- Pay attention to any changes in behavior.
- Be patient.
- Have conversations that identify ones feelings about situations.
- Give positive affirmations.
- Teach and use healthy coping skills to deal with stress. Coping skills can include, praying, exercising regularly with doctor approval, journaling feelings, squeezing stress balls for fidgeting hands, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, deep-breathing exercises, listening to music or playing an instrument.
- Discovering your child’s “spiritual gifts” or talents can help build their self-esteem and relieve anxiety.
Teresa said she recommends seeking professional help if the anxiety is getting in the way of daily functioning and decision making, such as having difficulty concentrating, maintaining relationships, starting to isolate, or having harmful thoughts.
Treatment can include mental health therapy, behavioral therapy and/or medication.
Teresa recommends the following resources for more information on anxiety and its symptoms and treatments:
Worry Wise Kids (http://worrywisekids.org)
The National Institute of Mental Health (www.nimh.nih.gov)
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (www.adaa.org)
“The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques,” a book by Margaret Wehrenberg Psy.D.