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Everything parents need to know about anxiety in children from a clinical psychologist.

* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the interviewees, but their identities are known to Mamamia.

Catherine* is a busy working mum of two pre-teenage children who both suffer with moderate cases of anxiety and depression. While trying to help her kids navigate the complexities of their feelings, she has asked herself in darker moments whether or not she is responsible for their issues.

“I have had my own journey with anxiety and depression and so the mother-guilt plays in the back of my mind often and I wonder, ‘did I cause this?’ My son suffers with anxiety whereas my daughter struggles with low mood and depression, so they have quite different issues and needs.”

Catherine believes that her son’s anxiety began when he was just a toddler after he became separated from her in a shopping centre.

“He was always a thoughtful and sensitive child and I remember how traumatised he seemed that day when he thought he had lost me. It was only a matter of seconds and yet since that moment he has always had a thing about getting lost or trapped.

“On a recent bush walk he became extremely agitated and panicked to the point where we had to stop and calm him down as he was verbally repeating to himself that he ‘couldn’t keep going.’ It was very distressing for the whole family.”

Psychologist and mum-of-three, Giuliette Moran, of Empowering Parents, says that while seeking professional support is advised as early as possible, there are some first-steps you can make to help your child/children.

“When a child appears to be struggling with a difficult feeling, it is important to acknowledge it and support them to identify more appropriate ways to act in order to manage and regulate their emotions.”

If you’ve ever struggled with talking to people with anxiety, we’ve made a helpful video that just might help.

Video by MMC

Professor, Ronald Rapee, clinical psychologist and researcher at the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University in Sydney, agrees that parental support and encouragement is key when it comes to assisting children struggling with anxiety.

A founder of the globally renowned Cool Kids program, Professor Rapee created the program specifically for children aged seven to seventeen who suffer with anxiety issues.

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“The Cool Kids program started life in the mid 1990s when I was a researcher at University of Queensland studying broad based anxiety in adults. The wider view at that time was that anxiety in children didn’t exist but that they suffered with specific phobias of things like ‘the dark’, or ‘being left alone’. A researcher in America, Doctor Philip Kendall had been doing some ground-breaking work in this area so I contacted him directly and asked if we could look at his program. Cool Kids developed on from that.”

The Cool Kids program officially launched in the early 2000s and has helped close to 2,000 children and their families in Australia and many more around the world. The demand for professional help for children with anxiety issues is high, but according to Professor Rapee, there are a number of ways parents can decipher if the behaviour in their children is normal, or the beginning of an anxiety issue.

“A common sign I tell parents to look for is avoidance, so when children start avoiding the things that cause them anxiety or stress; school, sport, sleepovers or even avoidance of making mistakes. Another sign is when children verbalise their worries or fears very frequently to parents and carers. In young children it might be fears of monsters or the dark, and in early teenage years it might be more focused on social situations or feeling excluded.

“Most parents use their common sense when it comes to encouraging and guiding their children, but one of the things we have found from our research is that parental encouragement must be consistent and given often.

“Aside from the powerful role that parents play in helping their child to overcome their mental health issues, it is important to give children skills to help them manage their anxiety. One technique we use is called ‘detective thinking’ where we ask the child to analyse the anxious thought to work out if that particular thought is realistic or fair.”

The good news is that according to Professor Rapee, the majority of children do move on from anxiety, even those who have parents with mental health issues.

“Our research shows that after completing the Cool Kids program 60 per cent of children are completely anxiety free immediately and 75 per cent completely anxiety free six months later.

“We still have work to do get the success rate up to 100 per cent and so a lot of research in the future will be aimed at the children who don’t get any benefit from the program and why that is.”

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For Catherine and her two children the future looks positive but it is an ongoing journey that the whole family is committed to.

“My son has had professional guidance and is completing a program targeting his anxiety. We meditate with him at bedtime and have a calming technique we use that we hope will teach him how to self-soothe as he grows older.

“As a family we are also trying to increase the amount of time we spend together outdoors being active, as well as fostering good sleeping and eating habits. This is important not just for my children, but for the mental health of our whole family.”

We also asked clinical psychologist and researcher Professor Ronald Rapee and psychologist Giuliette Moran to answer these frequently asked questions about anxiety in children. Here’s what they had to say:

How do I tell if my child has anxiety?

Look for signs of avoidance, frequent and extreme bouts of worry, extreme shyness and withdrawal.

When is my child most likely to suffer mental health issues?

It can happen at any age, even in very young pre-school age children. While it is not possible to say when or why children become anxious, some children are simply born with it and others experience anxiety after trauma or periods of great change.

What can I do to help manage my child’s anxiety?

When a child appears to be struggling with a difficult feeling, it is important to acknowledge and support them to identify more appropriate ways to act in order to manage and regulate their emotions. Consistent parental encouragement is also key for their long-term anxiety management.

If you are concerned that your guidance alone is not enough and your child needs more help, seek professional assistance sooner rather than later, starting with a visit to your GP.

Please visit Cool Kids program for more information or to see where it is offered in your area. You can also find out more about Empowering Parents and Giuliette Moran’s work via her website. 

Are you concerned your child is too anxious? How have you helped your child get through their anxiety? Tell us in the comments section below. 

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