Have your children had their mental health check up this year? It is important to pay attention to our little ones as 70% of mental illnesses develop in childhood, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CHMA). Anxiety disorders have been a major concern for mental health professionals as the rates of anxiety among children and teens have been on the rise for quite some time. According to the CHMA, about 6.5% of Canadian youth experience anxiety, making it the most prevalent mental health problem among younger age groups in Canada. 

What is Anxiety?

We all experience some anxiety from time to time, as it is a normal response to danger, threats, or uncertainty. Anxiety serves as a natural alarm system, alerting us of potential trouble, so that we can be prepared to fight for our survival or run away from the danger. For example, if you were on a hike in the mountains and a giant bear was running toward you, you would probably feel the rush of endorphins alerting you that you are in danger and you must do something quick!

The issue is that children and adults may experience anxiety even when there isn’t a real threat, like when writing an exam, for instance. A small amount of anxiety helps notify us that this exam is important, we want to do well, and we need to focus. But if we experience intense levels of anxiety, our thinking brain shuts off and we can’t remember any information, and all we can focus on is our heart beating faster and faster. 

With so many changes happening with Covid-19, anxiety has been more prevalent among children. Their usual, predictable school days have been flipped upside down. No more classrooms, lunch breaks, recess, field trips, and no more one to one connection with their teachers. On top of that, children don’t have their usual activities to relieve stress after a day of learning and following the rules. They were banned from the parks until recently, they couldn’t play with their buddies, and sports have been cancelled. 

Kids thrive on certainty, routine, and structure. When this is taken away or shifted, it is common for kids to feel like they are losing control or they don’t know what to expect next, leading to a state of anxiety and worry.

How is it different in children?

Anxiety can be tough to detect in children because our kids probably don’t even know what anxiety is. Instead of expressing their feelings and fears verbally, they typically show signs of anxiety and other emotions through their behaviours or by complaining of physical symptoms. 

Common signs to look out for:

  • Complaints of physical symptoms: stomach aches, nausea, headaches, tension, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, dizziness, shakiness
  • Constant worry
  • Irrational and excessive fear
  • Avoiding feared situations or activities
  • Needing excessive reassurance
  • Becoming upset when separated from parents/caregivers (could show up at bedtime)
  • Sleep issues (falling asleep or not having a quality sleep through the night)
  • Changes in eating/appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Acting out
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Irritability or low frustration tolerance (upset or crying over minor situations or conflicts)

When is Anxiety a Problem?

Many kids can learn to cope with anxiety on their own or with the help of a parent through deep breathing or healthy distraction. When they have too many stressors, such as during trying times like these, they may need extra help. 

Anxiety may be a problem when their fear and worry prevents them from enjoying being a kid. They don’t want to see their friends, they aren’t getting enough sleep, they can no longer focus on school work, or they are fearful of trying new things. Their security alarm is triggered more than it typically should be and they become distressed over minor things. They are unable to stop worrying and they may feel out of control. Basically, anxiety is an issue when it disrupts daily functioning

Tips for Parents

Anxiety can often be dismissed in children because they naturally ask questions and are still learning about the world. If they bring up fears, worries, or physical complaints, it is important to actively listen to your child and see what else is going on for them. Even if worries and fears seem small to us as adults, these are big, scary concerns and emotions for kids to experience.

      • Truly listen and acknowledge your child’s feelings. Validate their experience. Show your child that you hear and understand them. This means making eye contact, putting your phone down, and sitting with them.
      • Foster secure attachment. Reassure your child that no matter how scary or uncertain things are, you are always there to watch out for them and help them through. You are their secure base and safe haven.
      • Encourage your child to face their fears. If they are avoiding an activity because they are fearful of how well they will do, reassure them of their strengths and skills. Focus on getting through, rather than doing it well. Foster small steps of change.
      • Reinforce positive behaviour. When they actually do face their fears, reward them with a positive compliment (“Wow, that was so tough and you faced your fears and made it through! I am so proud of you!”). This builds up confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth.
      • Educate your child on anxiety or worry and how it shows up in the body. Explain to them that it is normal to feel anxious sometimes, but that they can learn how to get through it. Speaking with a psychologist on this will be helpful!
      • Create a sense of structure or routine to help foster a sense of security and predictability. This can include regular wake and bed times, snack time, or homework time.
      • Spend quality time with your child. Read with them, go on bike rides, walks, to the park, or whatever they enjoy doing with you. Brainstorm activities together and see what they come up with.
      • Plan creative activities to get out of the house. Places are opening up now around the city so check out local spots, like the zoo or parks, or plan a road trip to the mountains.

If you (the caregiver) struggle with anxiety, it is important that you take care of yourself  as well.

Tips for Children

      • Encourage time outdoors. Research shows that being surrounded by nature and green space has a calming effect. Soaking up vitamin D from the sun is also great for mood and energy.
      • With structured activities and sports being cancelled, encourage free play. Go out into the wilderness, encourage your child to climb trees, have a scavenger hunt, or build a tree fort.
      • Boost creativity. Children can get crafty by building birdhouses, painting pictures, drawing with chalk, or making soaps. Check out Pinterest for lots of creative ideas.
      • Encourage your child to connect with friends. If they can’t play with them face to face, connect over FaceTime or online gaming (as long as it isn’t all day long), drop off a care package or card, or bake a treat for someone special.
      • Have children help out around the home. Giving them helpful tasks allows kids to feel a sense of pride, accomplishment, and belonging.
        Ideas include:

          • Help cook dinner
          • Make dessert
          • Set the table
          • Clean their room
          • Take the dog for a walk
      • Plan things on the calendar. Keep the fall/ winter exciting by brainstorming together and have your child write down or draw their fall/ winter plans in the calendar. This gives them something to look forward to and allows for some predictability.
        Some ideas are:

          • Movie night with their favorite snacks
          • Snowfall fight/ snow castle building
          • Backyard fire and marshmellow roast
          • Visit loved ones or friends (even if they have to social distance)
      • Children need to learn to identify their own emotions, how they feel these emotions in their body, and how to manage these emotions. Some specific tips for coping with anxiety include: 
          • Deep belly breathing
          • Positive self-talk, talk back to worry with confidence
          • Healthy distraction (do 20 jumping jacks, colour, play outside)
          • Asking for help

When Should You Reach Out for Help?

When your child is unable to control their worry, manage their behaviours, or partake in activities, it may be time to reach out to a professional psychologist. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and specific phobias to name a few. Each disorder has specific features to watch out for, which your psychologist can inform you of. In therapy, your child will learn how to calm the anxious mind using mindfulness and relaxation techniques that are backed by evidence.  Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) will also be used to teach kids how their thoughts, behaviours and emotions are all connected.  They’ll learn how to identify anxious thoughts and effectively challenge them.  CBT is the gold standard for treating anxiety as well as various other disorders.

If you think that your child may be struggling with anxiety, it is a good idea to book a session with a trusted psychologist who specializes in working with children. The psychologist can help get to the root of your child’s anxiety, help your child learn proven strategies to manage anxiety, and collaborate with you to discuss how to best support your child. You will typically book an initial parenting session with the psychologist to go over your child’s history, milestones, concerning behaviours and symptoms, and goals. This provides the psychologist with a well balanced overall picture of your child’s struggles and gives you a chance to ask questions.

** Early treatment and support is essential for children and teens to live healthy lives later on. By working with a psychologist, children build resiliency and learn effective tools and skills that can last a lifetime.

Blog Post written by:
Vanessa Zuzak is a Registered Psychologist and owner of Solace Psychology in Edmonton. She has worked in the mental health field for over a decade supporting children and families on their journey to wellness. Vanessa is passionate about empowering children to safely express their emotions by teaching them helpful tools and skills that can be used at home, school, and anywhere else big emotions can show up. She strongly believes in collaborating with parents and caregivers to best support children’s needs and will work alongside you throughout the course of therapy.
Vanessa specializes in treating anxiety, depression, trauma (PTSD), addiction, as well as other mental health concerns among children and adults. Her approach to therapy is person-centered, meaning that she really takes the time to listen to you and tailors her work to help you meet your (or your child’s) specific needs and goals. Vanessa has completed various specialized trainings and uses evidence-based modalities in therapy, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), and Mindfulness-Based approaches, among others. When working with children, she often uses art, sandtray, and play-based techniques to connect with children and help them positively express themselves. Vanessa is kind, compassionate, and respectful. She is dedicated to helping children and adults achieve overall wellness and balance in their lives.

Instagram: @Solacepsychology
Facebook: @SolacePsychologyEdmonton