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Fears and anxiety disorders in children and adolescents

Fear/anxiety disorders in children and adolescents
Fear/anxiety disorders in children and adolescents
©: Vera Kuttelvaserova - Fotolia

Why do so many children suffer - particularly in rich Western countries - from anxiety or anxiety disorders? Is this a disease of civilization? And what can parents do to help their children?

First of all and foremost: Childhood and adolescence are a difficult phase of life. A phase with constant change and development. During this developmental process, it is quite normal for fears to arise - as long as they disappear by themselves after some time. If that does not happen, there is a real possibility this will develop into an anxiety disorder or even into a phobia.

What are anxiety disorders?

First of all, one has to distinguish between fear and an anxiety disorder. Fear is a protective response of the body, mind, and soul, which is present in everyone. An anxiety disorder is so to speak a more stringent form of fear. This means: an anxiety disorder involves fears that go beyond the normal extent. People without this disorder might not even experience this kind of extreme fear or might experience it less threatening.

In children and adolescents, you find anxiety disorders in particular in the social field. Not as much directed against specific objects, situations or animals. A social anxiety disorder or phobia is marked by fear towards certain situations, the child or young person may encounter this in context with other people. Their fears can show up marked by different symptoms. Here are some examples of known symptoms, which may indicate an anxiety disorder in the social field:

  • Speech disorders (i.e. stuttering) in conversation with other people.

  • Physical symptoms such as blushing, trembling, nausea or urination.

  • Low self-esteem, feelings of inferiority.

  • Strong avoidance behavior towards other people or situations while at the same time clinging to the parents.

  • Rejection of social responsibility.

What is the difference between an anxiety disorder and a phobia?

In terms of phobias, we talk about very distinctive fears. What, however, distinguishes an anxiety disorder from a phobia? A phobia is a kind of "further development" of an anxiety disorder. While the latter is usually connected to a specific object or situation, with a phobia the spectrum of fear expands while the person is unable to intentionally influence this fear. This creates an inadequate defense mechanism against anxiety that is hard to stop.

How do I know that my child has an anxiety disorder?

Children and young people are masters at hiding fears and anxiety disorders. Therefore, it is not easy for parents to identify this phenomenon. Some of the main symptoms I have mentioned already. Pay close attention if your child might isolate himself from family and friends (or other social situations). Even a drop in their school performance might be a sign that the child experiences excessive fears.

fear of school, fear to fail
fear of school, fear to fail | ©: Zlatan Durakovic - fotolia

With anxiety, it is not uncommon that physical pain is experienced, which over time can become chronic. If you notice that your child is suffering from diffuse pain, which is not attributable to any specific physical or mental and spiritual ailment, it might be the “side-effect” of an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders can also be the result of a physical disorder. The consequences of a thyroid disorders, both under- and a hyperactive thyroid – for example, could be fear.

How can I help my child with an anxiety disorder?

It is often those children who don’t have a lot of confidence, which then also develop an anxiety disorder. These children are often inhibited in their urge to communicate. It is important here that you find a suitable moment to discuss your concern carefully with your child. Let your child feel that he is not to blame and that at any time you have his back.

Sometimes distraction does help with anxiety disorders. Sport in this respect is an excellent way. Sport gives the person concerned the opportunity to prove themselves and to achieve success. This strengthens his confidence - the most powerful weapon against anxiety disorders.

fear of violence
fear of violence | ©: Markus Bormann - Fotolia

Another way to combat excessive fear are various relaxation techniques. They have proven to be successful. (I.e. autogenic training, yoga or progressive muscle relaxation according to Jacobson). Clubs and community colleges are places to find suitable courses.

Where do I find professional help for children with anxiety disorders and their parents? If you suspect that your child is suffering from an anxiety disorder, and you feel, conversation and tips don’t bring you any further, you might think of consulting an expert.

What are potential causes of children or young people’s fears? So far, not much light has been shed on this question. Although one can recognize the symptoms of anxiety, the causes and triggers of anxiety disorders are not really established.

By any stretch of the word, this question is not easy to be answered because the causes can be many – some might reach far into the child’s past and developed from there.

  • Let's imagine, the child grows up in a family where neither father nor mother really love or have time for the child. The child feels neglected. If then one of the caregivers also leaves, the child might feel abandoned. It might feel alone, and the fear of abandonment develops into a disorder.

  • Let's imagine, the child grows up in a situation where the child is always criticized by one or the other parent. The ongoing criticism makes the child nervous. He loses confidence and all he can think is: “Hopefully I am not doing anything wrong here.” He might retreat, develop difficulties to communicate, feeling weak and developing an extreme fear of failure could be the consequences.

  • Let's imagine, the child grows up in a violent home. For the smallest mishap, it gets smacked. Again, the child will develop a fear to make mistakes. After all, there is not only the criticism; the child was physically punished as well. It is possible that, with this aggressive behavior, the parent tries to cover up his own insecurity and lack of self-esteem.

  • Let's imagine, the child grows up in a sheltered home. The parents want only the best for their child and are prepared to do anything for him. The parents are always keen to ward off all danger from the child. The child is never allowed to romp around – after all, something could happen to him. And so the parents do everything for the child, downright spoil it. What they are also doing is, keeping the child from gaining experience. (Negative as well as positive). This develops into dependency and, later in life, the child will be insecure. Indulging your child leads to dependency and this subsequently to fear to achieve.

These are just a few examples, but they clearly show that fears in children are not coming from nowhere. In some (many) cases, it is probably the parents and not the child that needs therapy. If parents learn to understand themselves, they will be enabled to understand their child as well – which in turn will help them to bring their child up more appropriately. Unfortunately, for some parents that's not an easy thing to understand. They wonder why the child became so anxious, why it is afraid to go to school or has such a fear of failure. However, sometimes precisely these fears are caused by parents: instead of praising they criticize. Instead of encouraging the child to study with his peers, they might help them doing their homework. – Another piece of confidence is lost. Every time you criticize you child it gets a bit more insecure. Every piece of work you do for the child takes away another opportunity to make mistakes and to learn from them. Takes away the precious experiences as well as the sense of achievement after completion.

How are youth workers supposed to respond when dealing with children who suffer from excessive anxiety?

In the field of youth work you have the unique opportunity to create an "anxiety-free" environment. Space without criticism, without pressure, dispute and strife. The child, the young person, is allowed to be exactly the way they are. It can apply itself; they are entrusted with the necessary confidence to achieve. Something, he maybe has never experienced before. Create a sense of accomplishment, promote self-confidence, give criticism in a positive and constructive way and praise the child accordingly.

Without any doubt, children and young people, suffering from anxiety will come to your youth group or even come to a summer camp. Some on them might be extremely anxious and insecure for any of the reasons mentioned above. The chances are that you won’t notice immediately how little confidence this child has and that he is afraid doing anything on his own.

The aim would be to integrate this child as good as possible into the group. Organize deliberately games that emphasize the strengths of the child. This will give him the best possible advantage and help him to tackle difficult situations.

There are quite some games where there always losers. Avoid offering this kind of games to the insecure child. Nobody wants to be a loser – and in particularly not that child that had more than its fair share of criticism and feels already like a failure. As a youth worker, you need the necessary skills to choose the appropriate games for this situations.

Boost the strengths of the child and bring its weaknesses into perspective. Also give the child time gaining as much as possible confidence, to overcome his (alleged) weaknesses. Those assumed weaknesses are often not real and just exaggerated by others.

Throughout the years, I observed that delegating little tasks and jobs can do wonders to some kids. In general, summer camps are an excellent activity for children to learn independence and gain confidence. Rock climbing, abseiling on a 30-m cliff or a bridge jump are activities, so far, nobody might have expected from the child.

I have experienced many young people over the years, who literally blossomed. Initially shy and timid children (for example, at night walks, or night-time games). However, over time became more confident; many years later they are still grateful for this wonderful time.

Sometimes youth workers are quick to judge a kid to be a “coward”. This is unprofessional and shows that the youth worker is not really in touch with the child or young person. Every fear has its causes and reasons, which need to be detected and further explored. That’s the only way to help the child lastingly. In those cases, the youth worker has a great responsibility. His job is to encourage, boost and praise. To create an anxiety-free environment and support the child as much as possible so he can gain some confidence.

[ © | 2000 Games and Ideas for Youth Work ] - 2000 Games and Ideas for Youth Work
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