Bayside Psychology

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Anxiety and Children – Ian Stapleton “Peninsula Kids Magazine”

Anxiety and Children

  1.  Is anxiety or worry normal?

Psychologists differentiate between the normal fears and worries that all children experience as they grow up and more serious fears and anxieties. These normal fears in young children often revolve around separation from parents, fear of the unknown, fear of animals, fear of the dark and fear reactions to fighting, anger and raised voices.  Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat. Whereas anxiety is the reaction we have to all anticipated future threats. Obviously the two states overlap, but they are also different. Fear causes the release of chemicals in our autonomic nervous system that activates our fight or flight response, thoughts of immediate danger and escape behaviour. Anxiety is more associated with being on edge, vigilance and muscle tension in preparation for future danger or as a warning to be more cautious or to avoid situations that are considered potentially threatening. Worry or fearful cognitions tend to underlie all of the anxiety disorders.                                                                          

Clinical anxiety is different from normal fear or anxiety by being excessive or lasting longer than would be expected by normal child developmental stages. Clinical anxiety is also different from normal fears and worries because it is not transient and can last for several months. Because children suffering from anxiety and fear typically overestimate the danger of situations they avoid, the determination of whether the fear or avoidance is excessive or developmentally inappropriate is usually made by a parent, teacher or clinician.

  1.  What are the signs and symptoms of anxiety in children?

There are many signs and symptoms of anxiety in children. Basically, they fall into four areas.  Firstly, children may exhibit a marked fear or anxiety reaction to a specific object or situation such as an animal or going to the doctor or being separated from a parent. Secondly there is usually persistent and excessive worry about the object or situation. Thirdly, there is persistent reluctance or refusal by a child to participate in an activity or to avoid an object or activity. Fourthly, there are often repeated complaints of physical symptoms, headaches, stomach aches, nausea, vomiting, and behavioral issues such as bedwetting, sleep problems, nightmares and separation anxiety.

  1. When should a parent be concerned about the level of their child’s anxiety?

Most anxiety and fear symptoms are transient and passing. They are also age related and may be family and circumstance related. The majority of parents will recognise when their child’s worries become excessive or their avoidance behaviour becomes persistent.  Parents particularly need to be watchful following significant periods of change in a family especially following any period of loss or separation of parents, grandparents or pets.

  1.  Is anxiety and worry more common in children these days and why?

Anxiety and depression are certainly much more prevalent in children today than they were in the past. Many of the possible reasons for this have been well researched by sociologists and psychologists and may relate to the changing role of   children   against an   evolving   sociological   backdrop   of changing   family relationships, parenting styles, aspirational expectations and some fears for the future regarding the environment and the ever present political debate regarding such issues seen on television regarding equality, drugs, immigration, terrorism and domestic violence.

  1.  What can parents do to protect their child?

Resilient children tend to come from families where they contribute according to their abilities and are not “overparented”. The power of positive parenting is an asset for parents. Trying to remove the negative reinforcement for negative behaviour helps. That is, letting children know they can get what they want by doing what you want empowers   them to contribute   and make choices.   Seeking professional help from an experienced child psychologist or child specialist trained in behaviour change is an asset for parents when they feel they are out of their depth. Two or three sessions will always make a world of difference in your parenting style.

  1. News and Events

It is very important for parents to be vigilant when it comes to watching the news or allowing children to be exposed to social media, films and adult conversations.  Developmentally young children even in the teenage years do not have the intellectual or emotional sophistication to see things with a balanced perspective. As most parents know children don’t like being told what to do or how to think or feel.  Parents need to judge when and how to expose them to adult themes as they mature and show an interest.  A trap for children from more protective families is being exposed to inappropriate themes and material when away from home on sleepovers. Thankfully, most children take little interest in inappropriate or adult themes until they are in their latte r teenage years. Most involved parents will know when they can open up a dialogue with their developing children to include more adult themes.

“How is your Relationship?”

“You don’t communicate”, “You keep nagging”, “All you want is sex”, “I’m just the invisible provider”, “We argue about everything”, “I’m not your Mother”, “I can’t do anything right”, “You used to be fun”, “You drive me nuts”, “I don’t feel appreciated/valued/respected/wanted” …….. Sound familiar?

In a perfect world, the general idea is that couples commit to a lifelong relationship that will be full of friendship, joy, and love, and will carry them forward to their final days on this earth.  Except, of course, it doesn’t quite work out that way for most people.  The bad news too is that, according to a recent Australia-wide survey, relationship satisfaction typically deteriorates over time anyway, with men in their 40s most likely to be dissatisfied, while for females, dissatisfaction peaks in their 50s.

So what exactly is a workable relationship with enduring qualities?  This has been the focus of debate and research over many decades world-wide, and there appear to be some common themes.  When couples are calm and connected together, they promote warm and affectionate behaviour, even when they disagree.  Couples who also create within their relationship a climate of trust and intimacy, and who are kind and generous, in terms of time, energy and interest, toward their partner, as opposed to being critical, contemptuous, resentful, or hostile, allow their partner, and themselves, to feel emotionally and physically comfortable, and above all, satisfied.  A simple act of kindness in a relationship, whether given or acknowledged despite feeling stressed, tired or distracted, can make each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated – to feel loved.  Kindness doesn’t mean you can’t express your anger or disappointment, but it does enable you to get your point across through understanding your partner’s perspective and intentions rather than automatically jumping to the attack with a negative assumption.

In Australia, around 1 in 4 marriages fail, ending in separation or divorce, and for many, bitterness and dysfunction.  Invariably, however, there is a recognizable though often ignored pathway to the breakdown of a relationship.  As the normal stresses of life together pile up – kids, career, budgeting, friends, house stuff, in-laws, and other distractions crowding out time for romance and intimacy – couples tend to put less effort into their relationship, and let the petty grievances they hold against one another tear them apart.  As a consequence, couples become increasingly dissatisfied, and resentment, animosity, sadness, and emptiness can rapidly build if left unchecked.  Recent research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, however, found that only one in five couples having relationship problems seek professional help despite the fact that marital discord can affect children, mental health, work performance, and social relationships.

No relationship is perfect but that’s not to say you can’t aim for as many “perfect moments” as you can create.  Let’s face it, if your car or your computer wasn’t functioning properly, you probably wouldn’t just let it continue to deteriorate – you’d have in the workshop quick-smart!  So, if things are getting tough in your relationship, it may be that you would benefit from some impartial help from a professional trained in relationship counseling who will guide through the exploration of your relationship with the aim of identifying its strengths and weakness, and developing more effective strategies to build and maintain a relationship that is not only fulfilling but also valued.  At Bayside Psychology, we have a number of very experienced Psychologists who can provide such a service, and are ready to help you make a positive difference.

 

NAPLAN Week – supporting your child through tests

NAPLAN week is here again and at Bayside Psychology we have some top tips for supporting your child and reducing their worries about tests and exams.

  • Firstly, a few nerves are ok, it can actually improve performance by increasing alertness. However, we don’t really want children to get too stressed or worried. Doing well can improve confidence but too much pressure can make it hard for children to do their best.
  • Help your child to gain perspective.  Tell them that tests are the way we find out how schools are teaching children and how children are learning. Emphasise that what is important is that your child feels happy with how they have tried and that they are enjoying school. Rewarding children for completing the test is more beneficial than rewarding them for a particular mark or grade. Setting a particular mark for a reward can make a child give up if they believe it is unobtainable, or be upset if they put in lots of effort and still did not reach it.
  • Look after your child’s health. Help them get lots of rest, eat healthily and get a good night’s sleep. Doing some fun exercise the day before the test will help them fall asleep more easily the night before.
  • Make learning fun. Have a well-lit, tidy homework environment and if your child starts to lose concentration, it’s time for them to get up, move around and come back to their homework. Taking breaks to reflect on their work allows a child to consolidate what they have done. Then, after a rest, they will be ready to start again.
  • Practice relaxation and mindfulness. The free App ‘smiling minds’ has some great relaxation and mindfulness exercises for children and they can rate how they are feeling before and after completing them.

Here are some clues to spot when your child’s worries may be getting too big:

  • Look for changes in their behaviour. Children may become more irritable, clingy or hyperactive when they are worried. They can also be more withdrawn, more easily upset and less interested in doing the things they enjoy.
  • Children’s sleep patterns can become irregular; they may find it difficult to fall asleep or have nightmares or night terrors.
  • Children can talk about ‘feeling sick’ or having stomach aches, which may be a sign of anxiety.

What to do if you are worried?

  • Talk to your child about how they are feeling. Empathise and encourage them to think about what may help them to feel less worried.
  • Reassure them that their feelings are normal and talking can help.
  • Practice relaxation exercises and breathing slowly with them to reduce their anxiety.
  • If they are saying they ‘can’t’ do something, tell them they only need to give things a try. Hearing you talk positively about trying new things will help them understand and feel reassured.

Finally, if you feel your child’s anxiety or worries are becoming too big, talk to their teacher and go and visit your child’s GP. Children can access a medicare rebate for 10 Psychology sessions per year.  Here at Bayside Psychology we have 2 Psychologists who work with children struggling with anxiety, education difficulties and many other childhood problems. Ian Stapleton and Dr Zoe Taylor regularly meet with children and their families to provide assessment and treatment.  Intervening during childhood teaches children strategies they can use right through their school years and into adulthood.

Dr Zoe Taylor (Clinical Psychologist)