Robert smiled politely but cringed silently as his best friend, Tyler, passed out birthday party invitations. They’d been best buddies since preschool and Tyler had been talking about his ninth birthday party celebration at Silvercity for weeks. None of their friends would ever suspect that the excitement they shared in anticipation of this party was feigned on Robert’s part; he himself could not understand why he had begun to dread leaving the house and going places that used to excite him. He did vividly recall the occasion when, a few months earlier, his dad had dropped him off at a soccer field in time for the pre-game warm up, promising to return after a brief errand and in time for the game. Robert shuddered as he recalled the panic he experienced when he discovered that the team assembling on the field was not his own and, moreover, that his game was not even at that park. Now he had to deal with this party invitation, and he wondered, “Would his parents understand and help him excuse himself from this party?” “What WAS wrong with him?” “Would he ever feel NORMAL again?”
Anxiety is not uncommon to children, and can be debilitating when worry, fear or the experience of panic interferes with the normal activities and tasks of childhood. The products of anxiety can include mental preoccupation, sleep difficulties, nightmares, physical symptoms with no apparent medical explanation, clinging behavior, avoidance behavior, and withdrawal, sometimes to the point of refusing to attend school. These symptoms are extremely disconcerting to the child and his/ her parents.
Sometimes, as for Robert, there are clues as to the origin or source of anxiety; however the reason(s) why a child remains burdened with anxiety are often not at all apparent. The child’s suffering is confusing to the parents who are now further challenged in their efforts to support their child’s recovery from symptoms while helping the child regain a more typical routine and lifestyle.
There is GOOD NEWS. Anxiety is a treatable disorder and even very young children can be assisted in understanding and learning to reduce their anxiety. There are a few key principles important for both children and their parents to understand as they address anxiety.
1. While recurrent anxiety is a REAL feeling, it typically doesn’t reflect REAL danger or risk. Rather, it is the misleading sense that something might go wrong, that something bad might happen, or that one might re-experience the sense of helplessness and dread which occurred on an earlier occasion.
2. Anxiety is manageable because it is the product of our own imagination. Children who experience anxiety tend by nature to be creative and vigilant. Those same skills of creativity and foresight can be used to develop an effective personal response to feelings of anxiety.
3. We can talk to ourselves in ways that can either increase or decrease anxiety. For example, it helps a child to say, “I’ll be okay. Dad will pick me up soon like he promised”, rather than, “Oh No! What if dad doesn’t come back. I don’t know what to do”.
4. A significant component of anxiety is physical, and includes symptoms such as physical tension, shallow breathing, increased heart rate, and stomach, head or neck pain. Through specialized visualization, breathing and muscle relaxation techniques we are able to reduce the physical sensations associated with anxiety.
Childhood should be relatively carefree. A child who is burdened and distracted by the experience of anxiety, needs support. Treating a child’s debilitating anxiety requires effort and consistency in understanding, in approach, and in expectation by all significant parties: the child, his family and his school. As the child is supported in learning to effectively understand and address his own anxiety, it is encouraging to remember that he is developing life long skills on which to draw whenever circumstances later in life threaten to unsettle him. Developing, early on, an effective personal response to excessive anxiety can contribute to lifelong emotional health and resilience