How parents can recognize anxiety in their children

FLINT (WJRT) -- (11/02/2017) - Change can trigger anxiety or depression in children and teens - and it can be something small or big - changes in schools, moving, changes in the home environment.
But how do you know when it's more than just a little stress?

While adult anxiety is no surprise, it may shock you to learn how young children may be when they can first experience anxiousness.
Luckily, most kids show clear signs of stress and there are simple ways to help them feel more at ease.

"Anxiety is this overwhelming fear or feeling of things that may or may not happen," said Dr. Recco Richardson, PhD, a Clinical Therapist at Hurley Mental Health Associates. "It is a real issue and people have to really work hard to overcome it."

It can start in young children.

"The little 5 and 6 year olds they can really struggle because they never really had been away from mom or dad for 6 to 8 hours - maybe 3 hours at daycare or 2 hours at grannies," said Richardson.

And older kids can have a tough time.

"The transition from elementary to middle school can be daunting," said Wendy McCombs, a Counselor at Carman-Ainsworth Middle School. "It's a bigger building, there are a lot more students, transitions between classes, the lunchroom."

Entering the higher grades also brings new pressures.

"It's the first time kids are looking toward their peers and not so much their parents, for approval," McCombs said. "So when you're coming to school - what am I wearing, am I dressed ok, what are the kids going to think."

Now a few months into the school year, students are starting to feel the pressure of homework, midterms, and after-school activities.

"The majority of children that I know that are suffering from anxiety are high-achieving, smart kids," Richardson said. "Those go-getters that are very abstract and very focused and competitive. They're the ones that put the undo stress on themselves, they're the ones that're involved in 15 different clubs and volunteering for this."

Now some worrying can be a motivator - I have a test tomorrow I need to study - but how do you know when there's truly an issue?

"The difference is when you feel so anxious that you can no longer move forward and you get stuck," said McCombs. "You get stuck not being able to complete your work, not being able to make friends, not being happy, sometimes not coming to school at all."

There are signs you should look for - like changes in appetite. Some children may be clingy, crying, or irritable. They could make excuses for not participating in or dreading things they used to like. Look for physical changes like headaches, stomach aches or lack of sleep, and intrusive thought as kids start questioning their future and safety.

When you see a difference in your child lasting 2 to 4 weeks, you may want to step in and make any needed adjustments.

"Be there," said Richardson. "Kids need to know that adults or parents are there to listen. We often get in the habit of lecturing or talking to kids and solving their problems for them. A lot of times they don't want it solved, they just want someone to listen. Secondly, try to maintain a stable environment, a stable schedule, have a routine. Surprises are not good for kids."

At Carman-Ainsworth Middle School in Flint, teacher/parent/counselor communication is key to making a student comfortable, and they come up with a plan together to achieve that. For example, if a student is anxious over homework, the student may receive extended times to finish assignments. The district has also trained some employees in mindfulness techniques.

"We teach and talk to the students about different coping skills," McCombs said. "We do breathing techniques with the students, we do have small group sessions, we talk about how do we make friends, how do we have conversations with people."

A very small number of kids truly struggle with anxiety - many just need a healthy lifestyle and a little guidance.

"Medication is a last option," Richardson said. "We like to see regular exercise, fruits and vegetables, family activities, involved in extra curricular activities in school, hold some friendships, sleepovers, spending time with their peer group, structure. When you get those things in place, the majority of the anxiety, depression, problems with kids - can be managed easier."

If in need of professional help, the majority of children usually understand how to manage their anxiety after 6-8 sessions spread out over 6 months or so. And there are lots of free services through the school districts.

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