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Helping Your Anxious Child

Published in Mom’s Guide to San Diego – July 2014

By Blanca Fresno, MD

Anxiety is a normal human emotion. It can be described as uneasiness or fear about what might happen in the future. In anxiety disorders, this response can be overwhelming and incapacitating. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition among all age groups. One in seven children may experience this condition.

There are different types of anxiety disorders: panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, general anxiety disorder and specific phobias.

What symptoms do little ones have that indicate an anxiety disorder?

When children experience intense worry or unjustified fear they also have a physical experience: the fight or flight response. Their heart and respiratory rate increase, pupils dilate and palms sweat. Their body is preparing for a perceived danger. When this experience becomes chronic it causes physical symptoms such as headaches, belly aches, sore throats, itches, swallowing problems, constipation and depression, just to name a few.

This is the time when parents begin to worry and come to the pediatrician.

Pediatricians are good detectives. They ask many questions, look for signs of illness, and may order some tests. Once it is established that there is nothing physically wrong with the patient they can advise the family on how to help their child.

If your child is experiencing anxiety, remember to:

  • Remain calm. Children will follow your example. If you worry, they will worry even more.
  • Explain that there is no reason for concern. What you say matters.
  • Avoid that which triggers the anxiety. If is not possible to avoid the trigger, minimize it. A good example is when children are afraid of needles and they need immunizations. A brief explanation just before the shots are given is enough. Too much anticipation makes their fear worse.
  • Acknowledge the child’s feelings, but don’t get caught in them. When your little one is most out of control that is when you should be more centered and detached.
  • Provide a new focus for their attention. Find out what makes your child happy and relax and when the time comes bring that object or image to their attention. It could be as simple as a stuffed animal or as complex as an imaginary friend.

Anxiety affects children of all ages and is most prevalent in adolescents and young adults. In older patients breathing techniques, meditation and visualization can be used as part of the management. Medical treatment with antidepressants is reserved for older patients.