By Janneta K. Bohlander, L.M.F.T.
May 12, 2014
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental, emotional, and behavioral problems in children. Approximately 13 percent of children and adolescents ages 9 to 17 experience some kind of anxiety disorder.
Not surprisingly, research shows that children who have learning disabilities and face daily frustration, failure and embarrassment at school are more likely to worry excessively about academic performance, social status, and prospects for future success than their peers without LD.
Some children with anxiety disorders can be described as “the children in the shadow.” They may be in the shadow of children whose more disruptive difficulties claim the immediate attention of parents and teachers.
Although anxious children can have problems of similar magnitude, they may be less visible because they place the burden of suffering on themselves rather than on others.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is the result of a person’s judgment of risk or danger. It is based on their unique perception. What may not cause anxiety in one child may terrify another.
There are essentially three components of anxiety:
- Cognitive (thoughts): Children with anxiety tend to perceive danger and threats readily. They experience false alarms, overestimate the probability of catastrophe, and underestimate their ability to cope and survive.
- Physical symptoms: These include heart pounding, sweating, tension, difficulty breathing, nausea, stomach upset, and/or insomnia.
- Behaviors: Children exit a situation as soon as they perceive danger or have uncomfortable physical symptoms.
The Feeling Thermometer
1.) Piece of cake
2.) A little twinge
3.) Just a little uneasy
4.) Starting to bother
5.) Not too good
6.) Getting tough
7.) Pretty tough
8.) Really tough
9.) Can’t handle it
10.) Out of control
Strategies To Alleviate Anxiety
Parents and teachers are among the first contacts for an anxious child, which means they are on the front lines of early detection and intervention. The key to helping is to prioritize your child’s psychological and emotional wellbeing. Pushing beyond his or her limits leads to anxiety and school burnout, among other problems. Instead, utilize the strategies that follow to help alleviate the anxiety your child is experiencing.
Use the “feeling” thermometer as an index of intensity and change in emotions. This is used to teach children how to differentiate, quantify, and communicate levels of anxiety. Children are asked to describe their feelings on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is a “piece of cake” and 10 is “out of control.”
Introduce the concept of strengths and weaknesses into the family as part of the normal vocabulary. This is the idea that everybody in the family has things they are good at and things they are not so good at.
Children with LD in middle school may still need support from home. Parents sometimes think a middle-school child should be able to take care of himself. If he is unable to do so, he may fail.
Be aware of young adolescents’ social interactions. A study of middle-school children with LD found they feared that their friends would discover their LD and that they wouldn’t be considered cool. Parents need to shift more toward private remediation if possible, and away from noticeable or public remediation.
Decrease expectations if striving is a source of your child’s anxiety. Instead support him and help him feel confident in his islands of competency.
Minimize communication with an overly aroused or distraught child. When she is agitated it is best to wait until she calms down before trying to engage in conversation.
Build an exercise program into your child’s daily routine.
Build resiliency by teaching him to handle anxiety by himself, not by handling it for him.
Help him acquire and use relaxation skills.
Set a positive example by modeling the behavior you want her to learn. Teach her to recognize the connection between thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and physical symptoms; label her feelings; and accept and live with some uncertainty.
Provide for You and Me Alone (YAMA) time to enhance the positive relationship with your child.
When to Seek Help
Use the “Four D’s” to help determine if your child’s anxiety is reaching the level of a disorder that needs professional assessment and treatment.
- Disproportion: The anxiety is excessive, unreasonable and out of proportion to the situation or trigger.
- Disruption: The anxiety interferes with normal functions such as eating, going to school, doing homework, or sleeping.
- Distress: The child is distraught and easily upset. The anxiety is burdensome and bothersome resulting in unhappiness and misery.
- Duration: To meet the diagnostic criteria of an anxiety disorder, a significant level of anxiety should be consistent over a period of time.
Adapted from Worried No More: Help and Hope for Anxious Children by Aureen P. Wagner, Ph.D.