There’s a good chance that, wherever you are right now, someone nearby is on medication for anxiety; and it’s not just adults who have been stressed to the breaking point. One in eight children will seek help this year for debilitating anxiety. Parents, however, can help protect their children by watching for the warning signs that their children aren’t coping well with the stress in their lives.
Stress and Anxiety: Know the Difference
Stress isn’t all bad, according to psychologist and anxiety specialist, Dr. Jenny Yip, of the Renewed Freedom Center in Los Angeles.
“Stress is our body’s natural response to the environment,” Dr. Yip explains. “We all need stress to keep us motivated… Stress, in itself, is not abnormal because it can be beneficial to our survival when there are real dangers. It only becomes a problem when we believe that a harmless situation is threatening.”
When a child faces pressure—such as an upcoming soccer game, social gathering, or math test—the body’s natural stress response kicks into gear. Adrenaline causes the heart rate to increase, sharpens vision and hearing (helping the child to focus on his environment), and puts the brain on high alert. This is the “fight-or-flight” response our bodies need to help us avoid danger, and it can even push us to succeed under pressure. But, when the body is constantly under stress, it doesn’t have the chance to recover in a “safe” environment, and fear begins to rule our lives.
“Anxiety occurs when we become distressed; when there’s too much pressure from the environment and we do not have the resiliency or the tools to manage the stress,” Dr. Yip says. “Anxiety occurs when you fear something terrible might happen.”
Left untreated, childhood anxiety can lead to emotional and mental health issues that can impact your child for a lifetime. The more immediate threat is that anxiety—and the constant fear and insecurity it creates—can impact academic performance, stunt social growth, and lead to substance abuse.
Warning Signs to Watch For
How can you tell if your child is having a difficult time dealing with stress? When fear and anxiety begin to affect your child’s mental health, five tell-tale behaviors can help parents know when it’s time to get help.
- Throwing temper tantrums. This is not a “he missed his nap” scenario, but instead would be a pattern of inconsolable tantrums at the drop of a hat.
- Crying at small things. Barring hormonal changes and immaturity of very young children, if your child cries when he can’t find a matching sock while getting ready for school, it may be time for a heart-to-heart to find out what’s really going on.
- Needing constant reassurance. If your child is worried and constantly asks, “Is this OK?,” or, “Will I get hurt if I…?,” she’s fearing for her own safety. Find out why she’s anxious.
- Focusing on just one activity. This could be a video game, listening to music, or even a hobby, like reading. If your son’s devotion to his computer takes him out of the family environment, even just mentally, it could be a warning sign that he’s avoiding participating in life due to fear or insecurity.
- Obsessing with perfection. Children—especially those who feel parental pressure to achieve—may focus on one activity they repeat incessantly until it is perfect. If they write and re-write homework to perfect their handwriting, read and re-read assigned books until they’re almost committed to memory, or otherwise repeat activities until they reach what they think is perfection, take notice: when it becomes obsessive and affects other activities or family time, it may be an expression of anxiety.