Help your child battle anxiety

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Seminar gives parents tools to help children handle stress

By Kelly Neumeyer

“Who has ever been anxious?” asked John Whitfield to a room of about 40 parents and grandparents at Wright Elementary Thursday.

And though his question was answered with a lot of chuckles and no hands raised, it was clear to Whitfield and all those in the room, that anxiety is a very common problem.

Whitfield, a licensed clinical social worker, led the “Teaching Children Coping Skills for Dealing with Stress, Anxiety and other Strong Emotions” at the school last week, giving guardians some tips to help children deal with everyday stress.

The session is part of the free Peace for Parents Seminars offered by Our Lady of Peace Hospital in Louisville, part of the KentuckyOne Health network. Whitfield brings years of experience working specifically with children and adolescents in crisis, and he described anxiety and how it can impact children and their families.

“Anxiety is a mental health disorder diagnosed by the person who is experiencing it, but it’s very treatable by medical and mental professionals,” he said.

According to Whitfield, 25 percent of children meet clinical criteria for some form of anxiety disorder, but only 37 percent of those get help.

“It often gets under diagnosed and undertreated because children are also much more complicated than adults as far as psychiatric issues are concerned,” he said.

There are 11 specifically defined anxiety disorders. The more common ones include separation anxiety, selective mutism disorder where fear keeps one from speaking in certain social situations; social anxiety, panic disorder, recurrent and unexpected panic episodes.

There are also phobias of specific objects or situations.

“But there could be tons of phobias and anxiety disorders if we made each one a different one,” Whitfield said. “But phobias are a true terror.”

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is revealed in those who constantly worry and think the worst is going to happen. And there are unspecified anxiety disorders when there is clear evidence of anxiety, but it falls short of meeting the full criteria of a specific classification.

“Medical conditions can cause anxiety such as cancer, both for the person who has it and those around them,” Whitfield said.

Medicines can trigger anxiety along with some chemicals such as caffeine.

“And we rule out medical before we deal with the psychiatric,” Whitfield said.

Recognize signs, symptoms

of anxiety in children

Anxiety involves a lot of worrying, anxiousness, fear, restless, agitation, difficulty concentrating, aggression, crying, being easily startled, appetite issues, trouble sleeping. Uncomfortable feelings and anxiety is the number one mental health issue in children. There are no tests to confirm anxiety, but it is only by the report of symptoms from the person experiencing them.

“We all have features of mental health disorders, but it’s when it becomes so impairing that you cannot function in one or more realm of your life then that’s when it becomes a diagnosis,” Whitfield said.

Mental health, medical interventions

“Psychotherapy, meeting with a therapist, is one of the best ways … where you talk about and learn coping skills and rationalized ways to recognize anxiety for what it is and to be able to manage it,” Whitfield said.

Exposure therapy is another technique therapists use for phobias because the tendency is to pull away from what we are afraid of, but exposure will cause the client to face the fear gently to desensitize them to the phobia.

“But this should be done by a professional in a controlled clinical environment,” Whitfield said.

Play therapy and group psychotherapy are especially beneficial for children.  

“Groups can be so powerful because so many think they are the only ones having these symptoms and when they hear others talking about the same thing they realize it’s not just them,” Whitfield said.

Provide support

“If you act distressed about something, kids pick up on it because they are barometers for our emotions. They watch everything we do and they listen to everything we say and they model it,” Whitfield said.

Sensory-Based activities can also alleviate anxiety, including:

Deep Breathing by breathing in through the nose and exhaling out the mouth.

Exercising causes your body to produce natural painkillers and natural antidepressants.

Meditation/guided imagery/ safe place in their mind.

Relaxing music

Consistency is key

“I cannot say enough about consistency. As much as kids fight against rules and limits, they want them. They make them feel safe,” he said.

Have a regular schedule with breakfast, homework time, TV/game/computer, bath, bedtime. Try to avoid abrupt changes in a child’s routine

And if you set a consequence for kids you have to keep it. Kids will learn to manipulate hollow consequences, and they don’t feel safe because then they don’t know if they are going to get a consequence or not.

If you talk to a child about what they are nervous about and they stop talking about it don’t assume that it’s better. Keep re-engaging them about it and check in on them regularly. Make sure they know you’re concerned about their feelings and you want them feeling better and that the line of communication is always open.

Be patient and give them time to learn to use coping skills. And praise them when they use their coping skills.

Monster spray

If all else fails, find creative ways to help your child cope with stressful situations.

Whitfield noted his monster spray could help your child sleep better at night.

Purchasing an empty spray bottle, add water, essential oils or whatever ingredients you like. Give it to your child or use it yourself and let the child know it’s a special spray to chase the monsters away.