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Helping your child feel safe may be the best way to deal with childhood fears and anxiety, says Jennifer Garth.
It's enough to cause a panic attack. Twenty per cent of 12- to 16-year-olds have mental health problems and up to one in five children are at risk of developing severe anxiety. There is no doubt anxiety is the most common psychological disorder in children. But take heart, psychologist Jennifer Garth talks to the experts about childhood anxiety and what you can do to help your child feel safe.
"A child with a social phobia can be difficult to spot. At school they are the ideal student, quiet and compliant. At home, confident and happy," says child psychologist, Catherine Boland. But put them in a social situation where they are the centre of attention and quickly they become shy and withdrawn.
So what happens? Why is your child refusing to go to parties or avoiding classroom discussions? "At around age seven a child becomes cognitively aware of what others might be thinking of them," says Boland. They fear others are negatively judging them, or worse, they could do something embarrassing.
As a parent it's normal to want to protect your child from situations they find stressful, but if you don't gently nudge them to speak up and join in their avoidance behaviour can become entrenched. That doesn't mean you throw them in at the deep end. Instead, it requires a gentle and gradual approach of introducing them to social situations they would normally fear.
"Start by practising in a safe environment. Better still, make it fun," says Boland. "If your daughter is five or six and avoids answering the telephone, practise something like, ‘When the phone rings, why don't you pick it up, and in your big girl voice say hello'. Rehearsing beforehand helps build her confidence. Also acknowledge her efforts, in private, with encouragement." No matter how frustrated you feel, never criticise your child about her difficulty in social situations, and don't force her to talk to people.
Because specific phobias tend not to interfere with a child's day-to-day functioning, they usually go unnoticed, or parents tend to avoid whatever it is their child is afraid of and hope they will grow out of it.
"It's common for kids to be afraid of needles, blood and animals, things that move suddenly and loud noises like thunder," says Boland. "Being caught out in a storm can be so terrifying for a child that they have a panic attack. Your child, fearing another panic attack, can become hypervigilant and scan the sky for storm clouds. If they are going outdoors they will check the weather report and search for ways to make sure they're not caught out," says Boland. The treatment of choice is cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). It concentrates on training your child to notice when the physical and/or psychological symptoms of a panic attack are about to strike. Being aware helps your child to be prepared with techniques such as relaxation and slow breathing to help them through.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
What's most noticeable about a child with GAD is that they worry about a lot of things, a lot of the time. The best thing you can do is to teach your child how to negate worrying thoughts with a reality check. When she talks about her fear of an earthquake or tsunami demolishing Sydney, be sure to correct her with the facts, such as Sydney doesn't get earthquakes, and have some geology books on standby. Get her into the habit of basing her thinking on fact and help her stay in the moment by getting her to focus on what needs to be done right now.
Remember, your child is watching and absorbing your outlook. If you focus on the scary, your child will too, and her belief the world is an unsafe place will be confirmed. Make sure you develop a positive approach that is focused on problem-solving rather than catastrophising and overprotecting your child.
For the full story, see the June issue of Good Health. Subscribe to Good Health and receive 12 issues of Good Health & 6 FREE issues of The Australian Women's Weekly that's 18 issues for just $69.95!