Why are our children so anxious?

As anxiety rises among children and teenagers, MARTINA O’DONOGHUE talks to well-known clinical psychologist and broadcaster David Coleman about what parents can do to address the issue
Why are our children so anxious?
Clinical Psychologist David Coleman.

IT’S an unsavoury aspect of modern life: anxiety among young people is on the increase.

Youth mental health service Jigsaw, which offers counselling to people aged between 12 and 25, reported in 2018 that problems with anxiety were the most common mental health difficulty among young people who used the organisation’s services. With 39% revealing that they were suffering from anxiety, it was an increase of 7% in the previous three years.

More recent statistics were published in November, 2019, in the My World Survey 2, a national study of youth mental health in Ireland, developed by UCD School of Psychology and Jigsaw, with more than 19,000 young people from across the country taking part. It found that 40% of adolescents reported experiencing levels of depression outside the normal range and that 6% of adolescents said they had made a suicide attempt.

Such statistics do little to comfort parents who are keen to help their children and teenagers overcome anxiety but are often unsure who to turn to for help.

The cost of professional intervention can be prohibitive for some families, while others are on frustratingly long waiting lists. For others, their isolated geographic location makes accessing services difficult.

The recently launched online course ‘Scared Kids — Helping Children to Cope with Anxiety’, written by clinical psychologist and broadcaster, David Coleman, should offer an alternative way for parents to gain more knowledge on the subject and steer their kids in the right direction.

But why are kids presenting with anxiety more today than they did ‘in my day’, I ask.

“One — there probably was anxiety present then but there wasn’t the same media and public focus so it was less recognised. People weren’t as tuned into it, thinking it was just part of childhood,” offers David.

“Secondly, parents are more anxious now; anxious about their parenting, about the dangers they perceive for their children and the environment in which they are raising their children.

“Anxiety is playing a role in families and children are picking up on that.”

Social media has added much bigger pressure on older children, says David Coleman. Picture: Stock
Social media has added much bigger pressure on older children, says David Coleman. Picture: Stock

Social media also has a part to play.

“The older children are moving into social media and it puts a much bigger pressure on them than was ever the case in our day,” says David. “Going to a disco, you have to be seen to be with friends getting ready. Perhaps you are a social outcast if you’re not there and don’t have the Instagram post. So that can be a huge pressure — 12- 13 year olds are really anxious about this. It’s a different landscape now.

“When getting ready in someone else’s house, it’s not about kids wanting to be out of their parents’ view; it’s about appearing to be popular and appearing to be with people.”

David can even recall some of these feelings from his own past.

“When I started college, I remember whenever I’d be walking around on my own I’d feel very conspicuous, thinking, ‘Do I look lonely?’ By the time I was a postgrad I was happy to go anywhere on my own.

“So as you get older you do get a sense of self and your own identity and it becomes easier. But at 12 or 13 it’s all about fitting in. And the online experience has ramped it up.”

What about school-related anxiety?

“I see it all the time,” says David. “It can be caused by social anxiety, academic pressures, bullying, comparison to peers, not measuring up, poor self-esteem; anything can be a source of anxiety. A lot of parents can’t bear the thought of their children struggling with anything. It’s important to say to children, ‘We have faith in you, we really believe in your capabilities’. You can say to a four or five-year-old, ‘It sounds like you don’t really want to be in school today. Maybe something is hard for you at school?’ Then say, ‘We’ve great faith in you and we know your teachers are great, etc.’

“With that positive attitude the child does feel reassured that mom and dad ‘get it’ and maybe it will be OK. It’s about not overreacting to it.”

CONNECT INTO THEIR EMOTIONS: If we go straight to the rationale first rather than the emotional part, it won’t have a successful outcome.	Picture: Stock
CONNECT INTO THEIR EMOTIONS: If we go straight to the rationale first rather than the emotional part, it won’t have a successful outcome. Picture: Stock

For very young children, anxiety can manifest in a reluctance to go to sleep at night, as their worries seem to grow as night closes in. But is there a danger that they keep up this behaviour because they know it gets attention?

“Any emotional struggle for a child can become care-seeking, so it’s good for parents to know how to understand their child and not give them an over-generous response or make things too easy for them.

“A child needs to learn about their own resilience and face the problem. It’s easy for parents to do too much minding of the child’s emotions and not let them find their own way. You want them to feel safe and secure (in terms of going to sleep at night) but that doesn’t mean you lie down with them. It might mean that you visit them every five or ten minutes.”

So it sounds like, whatever the source of anxiety, be it school, divorce, etc, the same skills should be deployed by parents to help their child cope?

“It’s the same skills. You have to understand the physiology of anxiety, the adrenaline, how the brain works; and then engage with empathy and connect into the child’s inner world. It might be disappointment, shame or low self-esteem they are feeling but the more we, as parents, can guess what is going on and offer reassurance, the better,” he says.

“Connect into the emotions first. Anxiety is a feeling, so if we go straight to rationale first rather than the emotional part, it won’t have a successful outcome. Talk to the feelings first.” Can we say, ‘I know how you’re feeling… but…’?

“No, they only hear the ‘but’. Guess instead: ‘I wonder if you feel…? or ‘Sounds like you feel…?’ And then follow that by saying, ‘Even though you’re feeling that, you might want to try X, Y and Z. If you do this, maybe you will feel better’.”

Hurrah, no ‘buts’!

And it seems coming up with solutions for our children shouldn’t always be the goal.

“When we have a problem, we don’t always want a solution, we want understanding. That’s our role as parents — to show understanding,” says David.

Clinical Psychologist David Coleman.
Clinical Psychologist David Coleman.

Should life skills and resilience be taught at school?

It’s an emphatic ‘No’ from David Coleman. “It’s every parent’s responsibility. Teachers have enough to be doing. What is resilience? How do you teach resilience? People have to feel suffering and then realise they can come through it.”

His point is that we don’t want to intentionally put our children through suffering in the first place, just so that they can learn a lesson from it.

From our conversation it’s clear that in order to help our children help themselves, we as parents must have the skills first; skills which can be acquired through his course, devised in collaboration with Anokha Learning.

The course is written to support children within the age range of six to 18. It’s described as being for anybody who either lives with children, cares for children, or works with children. When one buys into the course, one is basically purchasing access to it for a 12-month period and can dip in and out of it at one’s own pace, returning as often as necessary in order to complete the course.

The course also comes with a full downloadable eBook transcript because, as David explains: “Some people are audio learners, some are visual learners and some are practical learners; they need to be doing things.”

There are audio downloads of some of the strategies in the course for practice and future reference, so there are plenty of tools provided to keep the learner on track and for revision.

The course is divided into eight modules.

1. Freaking Out:

How can I tell if a child has problematic anxiety? It compares ‘normal’ or typical worries that children have to the kinds of anxiety that can be problematic.

2. Upstairs, Downstairs:

Understanding how a child’s brain processes anxiety, ‘upstairs’ being the ‘thinking’ brain and ‘downstairs’ being the “feeling” brain.

3. Be Still my Racing Heart:

Helping children to respond to the physical symptoms of anxiety.

4. I Think Therefore I Am:

How a child’s cognition affects anxiety, looking at the impact of thinking on a child’s subsequent behaviour and feelings.

5. Walk in my Shoes:

How children’s emotional understanding impacts on anxiety; showing how children’s ‘bottled up’ anxious feelings can impact on a child’s inner emotional world.

6. Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway:

Addressing a child’s anxious behaviour, including helping children be more in touch with their bodies, and use physical activity to relieve anxiety.

7. I Worry Too:

Resolving adult anxiety so we can help children resolve theirs.

8. A Second Opinion:

Knowing when a child’s anxiety might need professional help.

The main aim is that the person doing this course comes away with confidence, a set of skills, techniques and ideas they can use to help children with anxiety, as well as addressing any personal adult anxiety.

For more information see: https://anokhalearning.com/helping-children-cope-with-anxiety

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