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Kids can’t always say what’s on their mind

Kids can’t always say what’s on their mind
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Children can be fearful of going to bed, going to school – or not going to school in the event of a closure. When a child can’t get past their worries, they may be struggling with anxiety. According to the World Health Organization, 10-20% of children and adolescents worldwide experience mental disorders. While mental health organisation Beyond Blue states on its website that half of all the mental health conditions we experience at some point in our lives will have started by age 14, and 13.9% of children and young people (aged 4 to 17 years) met the criteria for a diagnosis of a mental disorder in the last 12 months.

During times of uncertainty, parents should be extra aware of the signs of anxiety in children to help them manage their fears and worries. Below our experts explain what to look for and how to help your child cope.

Asking for screen-time more often

Asking for screen-time more often
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Many children love playing computer or video games, but those with anxiety may submerge themselves in screens more often. According to Professor Dan Mortenson, a lead therapist at the Chicago Cognitive Behavioral Treatment Center, “Excessive use of screen-based activities can often be a sign that a child is struggling and trying to escape from difficult emotions,” he says. Instead of letting your child retreat into the screen, you can interact with them as they use it. Play a game together or ask questions about what they’re watching. You might find out some insightful information about how they’re feeling in the process.

Pleasing everyone in their path

Pleasing everyone in their path
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Kids with anxiety tend to be people-pleasers for fear of disappointing someone they care about. Assertiveness and self-esteem skills are crucial for children to develop at an early age and, without them, kids may always have a fear of rejection, says cognitive behavioural therapist Julia Colangelo. “I encourage parents to take some coaching classes to learn how to develop these skills [in their child] if they notice that their child is always ‘being pushed around’ or not asking for what they want or need.”

Washing hands more often

Washing hands more often
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Several subtle physical rituals can go hand-in-hand with anxiety in children. When children “don’t know how to deal with [anxiety] or are too embarrassed to discuss it with adults, the anxiety can come in many forms,” says children’s health, fitness and wellness advocate and author Len Saunders. Sometimes this can manifest itself in physical rituals, he says. Some common, but subtle, signs include excessive hand washing, nail-biting, scratching the scalp, chanting, shaky hands and sweating. Some kids may even start becoming obsessive organisers. Pinpointing the cause of a child’s anxiety symptoms is crucial. However, it’s also important to give your child the best coping skills to prevent anxiety. Meditation, positive thinking patterns and journaling can be excellent coping mechanisms for kids.

Suddenly wanting to sleep in your bed

Suddenly wanting to sleep in your bed
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Waking often through the night, having trouble falling asleep, or suddenly asking to sleep in your bed every night could all be signs of an anxious child. Clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, Rebecca R. Berry, says that major and sudden shifts in a child’s night-time ritual might be a way for a child to cope with anxious feelings. Berry says sticking to a routine in which you’re involved by reading books, helping a young child with a bath, or listening to some calming music together can help ease anxieties.

Pulling away from their bestie

Pulling away from their bestie
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If your child prefers to be by themselves when they used to be a social butterfly this could point to depression. But, this could also be a sign of anxiety in children. Colangelo advises that parents “explore ways to engage their children one-on-one with other children or siblings,” such as playgroups, team sports, and other social activities they might be comfortable with.

Learn how to recognise the signs of childhood depression.

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Refusing their favourite foods

Refusing their favourite foods
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You might think your child is just becoming picky about his or her food preferences, but suddenly shunning favourite foods or changes in eating patterns could mean something more. According to a 2015 study published in Pediatrics, moderate and severe selective eating patterns can be associated with anxiety. For some children, undiagnosed sensory sensitivities may play a significant role in anxiety towards newly introduced foods. It’s important for parents to talk to their child’s paediatrician as soon as possible after noticing changes in eating patterns or increased food aversions to get their child the right help.

Now discover foods that make anxiety worse.

Attaching to your hip

Attaching to your hip
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A once-independent child becoming more dependent and emotionally attached to a parent could be a subtle sign of anxiety. According to Colangelo, you might notice your child wanting increased alone time with you or becoming jealous of your time with a sibling, which might cross the border from secure attachment to anxiety-driven attachment. Parents should be sure to “reflect on any recent changes [in a child’s life],” like hearing a scary news headline or parents’ divorce, “and then [respond] consistently with reassurance,” says Colangelo.

Did you know there are several everyday habits that can trigger anxiety?

Asking about everything

Asking about everything
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“Kids are known for asking a lot of questions,” says Mortenson, “but when the questions start to happen multiple times a day and shift to seeking reassurance”, anxiety could be an underlying factor for the excessive questioning.” Children with anxiety worry that things will be OK, whether they’re focused on an upcoming test or the outcome of their lives in general. If there seems to be a lot of worry-based questioning coming from your child, you should take it upon yourself to also ask questions without being intrusive. Give them time to answer what they’re comfortable with and make it known that you’re ready to listen to all their fears and help in whatever way you can.

Although it is natural to try and reassure a friend who is upset, there are things you should never say to someone suffering with anxiety.

Complaining of aches and pains

Complaining of aches and pains
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Berry says that anxiety in some children shows through aches and pains, especially in the head and stomach, that aren’t related to any other medical condition. Parents may be able to help curb physical pains that accompany worry by helping their child “tolerate the uncomfortable physical feelings that may accompany stress,” says Berry, such as showing him how to take regular breaths using the diaphragm, rather than short, rapid breaths.

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