Everyone has times when they feel worried, anxious or afraid – these are normal responses to life’s uncertainties and help keep us safe and do our best in new situations. Anxiety about an upcoming presentation or test propels us to prepare; fear of a strange dog keeps us from approaching it.
In some children, teens and adults, however, these uncomfortable feelings can start to take over. In fact, about one in 10 people experience ongoing anxiety that interferes with their daily lives and causes them, and their families, a lot of distress. These people need help gaining perspective and learning skills so they cope with, and overcome, their fearful feelings. If they don’t learn how to manage their anxiety, they will have a hard time functioning in their lives and could develop more serious mental health problems down the road, such as depression or substance abuse.
Signs and Symptoms
But how do you know if your child, or your friend, has a problem with anxiety?
Young children with anxious tendencies often cry and cling to their parents when it’s time to separate – for example, to go to school or a birthday party. Children and teens will complain of headaches, stomach aches, or sore muscles. They may avoid new situations or places and even activities that they used to enjoy. They may express a lot of worry and sometimes they may have full-blown panic attacks.
A panic attack happens when a perceived threat triggers an internal fear alarm called the fright/flight response. The brain tricks the body into thinking there is a real survival situation at hand. The person’s heart races, their chest aches and they experience shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating, trembling and thoughts that they might be dying. About one in five young people will experience a panic attack at some point. They’re not dangerous and pass after a few minutes – but they do indicate a stressed state that means the person is at risk of repeat attacks and increased anxiety and avoidance behaviours.
If you notice these signs and behaviours in a friend, let them know you think they might have a problem with anxiety and suggest that talk to their parents or another trusted adult about their feelings. Refer them to the resource links on these pages for information about how they can learn to feel better.
If you’re a parent of an anxious child or teen, start by doing what you can to reduce stress in your home. For example, ensure the family is on a regular routine and that you’re not overloaded with too many activities. Also, age-appropriate bedtimes and make sure your child eats lots of fresh, nutritious food, gets lots of physical activity, and spend time doing things they enjoy, like drawing, reading or listening to music. Regular cardiovascular activity is a great way to help manage anxiety. Feelings of anxiety get worse when a person is run down and not having fun. Be sure to make note of your own general health and feelings of anxiety as well. Your stress levels, words and behaviours have a major impact on your child.
Review the suggestions and strategies from Anxiety BC. Work with your child or teen to learn the basic techniques that control anxiety, such as slow breathing and muscle relaxation. The other thing to teach your child is to think realistically about situations that make them feel anxious. Are the things they’re afraid of really likely to happen? Listen to them carefully and, without downplaying their fears, encourage them to challenge their scary thoughts. Make a plan to slowly start doing the least-scary things on your child’s list of anxiety-provoking activities, so they can learn to apply their new skills to stay calm. This way, they gain confidence over time.
If your child is still finding it difficult to go to school, out in public, to social events, and so on, you may need outside help. The Strongest Families program will work with you and your child, at your convenience and from your home, to develop the skills and attitudes to overcome anxiety.
In more serious situations, where anxiety and panic is regularly keeping your child away from school, friends and activities, contact Mental Health and Addictions Services at the IWK.