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The first few weeks of the school year are anxious times for many children and their parents. Being prone to anxiety and nervousness tends to run in families and crosses all boundaries so that there are parents and children of all ages, races and gender in varying states of irrational anxiety when September arrives. Studies show that anxiety disorders appear in fifty per cent of sufferers before the age of ten and in ninety per cent before the age of twenty. Genes involved in the production of stress hormones are thought to play a role in irrational anxiety.
A study of sixty-five seven-to-twelve-year-olds, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health in the US, demonstrated that children with anxious parents are 3.5 times more likely to have anxiety than those whose parents are not anxious. The study included children who were anxious, children with parents who had anxiety disorders but who were not anxious themselves as well as non-anxious children with parents who were also not anxious. The primary objective of the study was to find out whether the children with anxious parents do, in fact, exhibit early signs of underlying mechanisms for anxiety - whether they learn to fear more quickly when exposed to threatening events and remain fearful disproportionately.
Physiological responses, and the rate of their disappearance, were measured when the children were conditioned to being exposed to cues associated with a loud noise and compared to measurement of their responses to cues being presented without the noise. Sweat gland activity increased in the children with anxiety during the first phase and there was a slow decrease in this in the children considered to be at risk, both in terms of cues that signalled the loud noise and those that did not. This indicates that anxiety and the risk for anxiety in children are due to over-stimulated nerve cells in response to threat and their impaired inhibition in response to non-threatening situations.
While an anxious parent can mean an anxious child or a child at risk of anxiety disorders, the experts say that, if detected early, children and adolescents can learn to cope with anxiety, fear and phobia and prevent the emergence of severe anxiety disorders. The key word here is cope and not avoidance, which is the child’s first defence, especially if such behaviour is the norm on, for example, the part of a parent whose social phobia isolates him or her from interacting with other people.
Today, anxiety disorders are one of the most prevalent of childhood psychological disorders, the most common being separation anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social phobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Signs and signals of anxiety in a child are usually seen in rituals, perfectionism, withdrawal, inability to socialize, speak in class and school refusal – all avoidance behaviours. Parents, whether familiar with anxiety issues or not, must seek help when a child’s avoidance behaviour really begins to affect his/her well-being. It’s not going to go away and could lead to depression – in fact, will lead to depression because children, unlike some adults who are quite happy to be reclusive, do not thrive in isolation. They must learn to manage their anxiety.
Parents, whether familiar with anxiety disorder or not, cannot teach anxiety-prone children how to do this by themselves for the very obvious reason that children must go to school. Schools today are, for the most part, accommodating to special arrangements being made for anxious or phobic children from allowing young children to bring a toy into class, to feel more secure, to having older children on individualized plans or being excused from tests. In many schools, all children learn about stress in health classes and are given instruction on breathing techniques to help them through stressful events and tension. This assists other children in understanding the problems anxious children are having as well as teaching anxious children that stress and tension impacts on everybody, as well helping them to control stress as a means to also control their anxiety. Stress is something we must all learn to deal with today, especially the anxiety-prone. Hopefully, it will become a required part of all health class curriculums in the years ahead.
Coping tools and aids for both children and adults with anxiety disorders include self-help programs and relaxation CDs which also reinforce the fact that they are not alone in suffering anxiety disorders. Working with these together can help both parent and child especially in terms of keeping communication open. Parents who maintain consistent schedules will find that this helps to dispel children’s anxiety as well as their own and, of course, paying heed to the old adage that you can’t help somebody else until you’ve helped yourself, will necessitate getting the treatment needed to manage their own anxiety instead of transmitting it to their children.
Treatment for adult or child, today, does not mean medication. There are therapies that are far more effective and enduring which, because they change the subject’s outlook, have the additional benefit of removing the fear of stigma which medication cannot do. Fear of being labelled means that taking medication is not something that we broadcast – especially if it is prescribed to children. Therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and other exposure therapies go beyond that fear of stigma because they are teaching control and management of anxiety, not just fixing things for the short-term.
Copyright Jean Jardine Miller.