Anxiety in Kids- Most common tell-tale signs
12th August, 2021
Screaming, shouting, crying or being disruptive are common expressions of children being difficult, right? Any parent can relate to these types of behaviour.
Parents and children are under pressure more than ever due to extended lockdowns occurring all across Australia. Whilst, some states may have more experience with this, it certainly is challenging for everyone.
Are these episodes expressions of defiance, or are they valuable emotions?
Growing children are constantly developing and changing. During this period of time, when children are continually learning, comprehending and processing information, some children may become overwhelmed or frustrated, leading to outbursts of emotion.
Let’s take a different perspective of how a child’s brain develops.
A child’s brain develops from the bottom up, just like a cup filling from the bottom to the top.
A child’s brain starts to develop at the brain stem, which is referred to as the primitive brain. This governs sensory and motor skills and survival. We see this stage of development from birth. Up to the age of 3 years, children develop the next stage in their brain called the limbic brain. This governs physical attachment and emotional attachments. Finally, from 3 years and over, a child develops into their thinking brain or the cortical brain. This area governs reason, thinking, language and learning.
If we think of a child’s brain in this way, we come to understand perhaps why they react in the way they do, to events or situations. A child’s response to an event or situation can greatly depend on their age and how they process information. The additional factor to consider is environmental influences and associations with an issue. As children develop they create stories to correlate a place with an emotion or an experience. For example: When Dad takes me (3.5year old) to grandma’s house she always hugs me, makes me lunch and I get to play in her big garden.
Here, the child may associate this experience (or story) as a positive experience and feels comforted, happy and knows that it’s a safe place to go.
Let’s look at another experience of a child:
A 2-year-old boy, only wants a certain cup to drink from, however the mother gives him another cup which the child has used in the past. A fixation and an attachment has developed with a preferred cup. Already, an emotional connection (as a story) has been made to the preferred cup, yet the mother gives the child another cup. The different cup has resulted in a crying child, whilst the mother assures the child that it is ok, and that it’s fine to use other cups. The child’s brain is unable to process logic and reasoning at this age. Here, the child may associate the experience with being sad, upset and angry. Only, certain neural pathways have been developed, and a child at this age is still operating off their emotional brain rather than their logical brain. Believe it or not, this is a normal emotional pattern of behaviour for this age regarding the possession of an item.
This is often why a child who is processing from their limbic brain may seem to have five emotions within ten minutes! Emotions can seem to switch on and off, with no clear logic or reasoning. This can be exhausting for both the parent and the child. Processing these emotions can be overwhelming for a child, particularly when they are tired and need to rest. Children will often nap during the day up until the age of 3 years.
Sleeping is extremely important for children, it allows the brain to collate, organise and file information from the day’s events. Sleep helps the brain to make new pathways and connections, if a child were to have the same or a similar experience, the emotional reaction may be less intense the next time around because the brain already has some evidence of a familiar experience.
When we process information as adults we are able to understand logic, reason and negotiation. A child’s brain is not fully developed until the age of 18-20 years. A growing child goes through peak periods of growth and development, both physically and emotionally.
But why is my child constantly emotional?
Some parents may feel that their child is constantly emotional, however these emotions may be a sign of anxiety. In Australia, anxiety in children is a common concern. It is estimated 1 in 14 children, aged between 4- 17 years old, suffer with anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling of an overwhelming response to stress. Anxiety may be a short lived experience or for some, it may be a constant concern. Children, as they grow and develop, process and interpret information at a rate which may be beyond their comprehension.
As their world expands as they grow, some children may become overwhelmed, this may be interpreted as a negative response.
How can I tell if my child is feeling anxious?
There are often tell-tale signs when a child is feeling anxious or has developed anxiety. Some of these signs may be:
- Becoming withdrawn and non-communicative
- Becoming angry or aggressive
- Physically hitting other children or adults
- Worrying about things or having worrying thoughts
- Not sleeping
- Not concentrating or have difficulty at school
- Loss of appetite or not eating properly
Five top tips support your child?
- Acknowledge and confirm how they are feeling- Whatever the child’s age is, acknowledge that their emotions are important too. Being dismissive of a child’s feelings is not a positive way to deal with an outburst. It’s impossible to reason with a child when they are in the throes of a meltdown, remember, here they are operating from the limbic or emotional brain. Rather than shut them down, acknowledge that they are upset and allow them to express their feelings in a safe place. Let the fire burn out and then comfort and compassionately discuss how they are feeling.
- Create a positive and safe experience - This may involve a number of extended family members to help the child to feel safe and supported. There is a saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”. There may be many people in a child’s life who play positive roles and offer different elements to a child’s growth and development. Having a family night or family day, may be one way that you and your child, or other children in the family, can spend time together. Perhaps try, a walk with a grandparent, simply watching a TV show together, or playing charades as a family.
- Give the child an objective or chore – Believe it or not, some children like to have some type of responsibility within a family dynamic. It may give them a sense of contribution and independence and allow the child to have structure and routine. It can help children to focus on something else and allow their feelings to become more manageable. Make sure that they have a task that they are able to complete within their capabilities, not unrealistic tasks which may create frustration.
- Do not avoid situations or events because it may make them anxious – A child may become anxious due to a myriad of reasons or an event. Help the child acknowledge that sometimes things can be scary, difficult or challenging. Trying to avoid every scary situation or event will not allow them the opportunity to develop the skills required to manage their reactions . Confirm with them that it is ok, and that you are there too. You may even share your own thoughts and fears with them too. Whisking them away or avoiding challenging situations will only reinforce negative repetitive patterns.
- Tools and resources for an anxious child – Some children may find focussing on an external object may help them to calm their anxiety. Teaching them about deep breathing is another way they can be encouraged to help themselves in an anxious moment. As a parent, you may be not always be around to help them or discuss their concerns, but helping them to find useful tools and techniques may give them a sense of control over their own emotions.
Got it! Program: https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/mentalhealth/resources/Publications/got-it-guidelines.pdf
Resources & References