The Worrying Child: Psychologist David Carey on Childhood Anxiety
Karen is eight years old. At night, she repeatedly checks the windows and doors to see if they are locked. Paul is 11 and he spends every evening looking out the window for a white van because her fears kidnappers will come and take him. Rose is six and she cries in school because she thinks something bad will happen to her mother. Rocco, 12, has bitten his fingernails to the quick and washes his hands so often they are raw. David is seven years old and he can't stop thinking about a car crash that might happen when his father is on the way to work.
All these children have forms of anxiety. Some of them have a mild form characterised by excessive worrying. They can't stop thinking that something bad may happen. Some of the others have full-blown anxiety disorders characterised by obsessive checking and hand washing. The same difficulties can occur in the teenage years and are sometimes so severe they interfere with school attendance.
The child who worries excessively should not be ignored. Worry of this nature won't simply go away on its own. Anxiety in children is more common than we like to think. In fact, a recent report in Ireland indicates that anxiety is amongst the most common mental health problems affecting teenagers.
What are the signs of excessive worrying and anxiety in children?
- Excessive worry most days of the week, for weeks on end
- Trouble sleeping at night or sleepiness during the day
- Restlessness or fatigue during waking hours
- Trouble concentrating
It is important to note that anxiety can be a normal reaction to stress. Events in the life of a child such as appearing on stage in a play, a dance recital or an athletic competition all cause normal anxiety to occur. This sort of anxiety is often useful because it can be transferred into dedicated effort to improve performance. It's important to understand that normal anxiety is a part of life and that we can develop skills in coping with it.
What can you do to help your worrying child?
The best way to help is to be able to talk to your child about their worries in a non-judgemental way. Be supportive, understanding and be careful to listen to, and acknowledge, their feelings. It is not helpful to say something like "It's nothing to worry about" or "stop worrying." It's better to respond by saying "I can see you are really worried about this and it's upsetting you. Let's sit down and talk about it."
You might reassure your child that you also have worries from time to time. You don't need to go into great detail, just letting them know that you sometimes worry too can be helpful. If you decide to go down that route it will be helpful to let your child know how you cope with your worries.
Do you go for a brisk walk? Do some exercise? Read a book or watch a movie? Try to stop and think about how you can solve the problem that worries you? The more we can teach children about coping, the better protected they become from excessive worry and anxiety.
David Carey has over 25 years experience in both clinical and educational settings. The author of several books, he's also a regular contributor to the Moncrieff show on Newstalk 106-108FM and on TV3.