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'A' is for Anxiety: Helping children during tough times

Updated: Jul 18, 2021

Youth anxiety levels have skyrocketed over the past year and a half. As we continue to navigate the pandemic and its complex ramifications, it is important to keep a close eye on what is happening with our youth. Their developing brains make them more vulnerable to the pandemic's psychological effects. As parents and caregivers, we need to help children find means of expressing and exploring their emotional worlds – especially during difficult times.

Some might argue that children are resilient and will easily "bounce back", once things return to "normal". This is only half-true. Young people are extremely resilient and adaptable. However, we cannot overlook the potentially devastating effect of social isolation. Schools were closed in order to curb the spread of the virus, and although many schools offered online learning, tens of thousands of learners suddenly faced the threat of not progressing academically. All forms of sport were stopped for an entire year. Many teenagers, for whom reaching the pinnacle of achievement in their sport was their primary goal, were cruelly denied the opportunity to perform.

Socially, the year of isolation has had a significant impact. A developmental stage during which establishing one's position and obtaining a sense of belonging to a group is hard enough as it is. Not having exposure to the intricacies of the face-to-face interaction required to achieve that sense of belonging is potentially damaging. The very important work of bonding with peers has been rudely interrupted.

The shutting down of schools and halting of sports were necessary interventions. Yet, from the sample of teenagers I have interacted with in the past few months, it seems that many are struggling to reintegrate into a normal school routine, and some have even lost interest in sport. The disruption has left a huge void for teenagers and has increased their risk of falling into depression or experiencing anxiety disorders.

Many, it seems, have attempted to fill that void with technology. Online gaming, chatting, and even dating seems to have increased dramatically. Even in households where access to devices is limited, many parents have taken a far more permissive stance during the pandemic. After all, everyone had to find ways of coping. Unfortunately increased screen time has, in my opinion, put young people into an even more precarious position. Not only are they not getting the social stimulation they require, but they are increasingly being exposed to ever more dangerous content on social media platforms. Under the guise of providing social connections, platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and TikTok serve to isolate young people even more. During the course of a day, a teenager can watch videos about nearly anything, chat virtually with anyone, play almost any video game, be a victim of nearly any cyberbully or predator, and compare themselves (unfavourably) to practically any celebrity, all without ever leaving their bedrooms.

The challenges young people face are real and have far-reaching consequences. The challenges are amplified tenfold by the pandemic. It is up to us, adults, to support, encourage and protect our kids, particularly through these difficult times. The pandemic has brought uncertainty, fear, loss, and instability. School and home routines have been disrupted, and our youth continue to have to navigate the complexities of being young, while the foundations of routine and stability have been eroded. It is no surprise that youth anxiety has skyrocketed.

With that in mind, here are some tips to help support them should you feel they are experiencing anxiety.

Know the signs

Young people present with anxiety in various ways. Younger kids may be more clingy, or complain of physical aches and pains. Some express their anxiety through tantrums and irritability. Teenagers also tend to "act out" when they are not feeling okay. Anger outbursts are common in anxious adolescents.

Many teenagers turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse or other forms of self-destructive behaviour. Panic attacks are a tell-tale sign as well. Teenagers may become overwhelmed and display panic-like symptoms, such as hyperventilation, increased sweating and tremors. Other teenagers simply withdraw from interactions with family members and retreat into isolation. There is a risk that these teenagers may become depressed, as there is a correlation between social isolation and mood disorders.

Ultimately, each child is different and will present their challenges in their own unique ways. As adults, we should not expect children to have the ability to express themselves. Rather, we should look for changes in their behaviour, as this is often the first place that the anxiety becomes evident.

Encourage emotional expression

Talk to your kids... a lot. In particular, talk about feelings. Many children don't have the vocabulary to describe their feelings. When they are anxious, they may tend to act out instead. Help younger children understand their emotions by giving them a verbal framework. Demonstrate by using "I" messages. Keep the lines of communication open with teenagers, even if they are withdrawn.

Teach coping mechanisms

Modeling the ability to use specific coping mechanisms to deal with anxiety can be a huge help. Know (or find out) what helps you deal with anxiety or stress, and demonstratively use that activity as a coping mechanism. Let your kids know when you are not feeling okay, and let them observe you practicing self-care. Discuss with your child what coping mechanisms they may find useful. Encourage them to explore various options until they find the ones that work for them.

Maintain a good routine

This is a time-tested way to help you get through difficult times. Sticking to a healthy, balanced routine fosters a sense of safety. The mistake many people make is to try and include too many activities into their routines. I would suggest keeping it as simple (and therefore as manageable) as possible. Bear in mind that too much emphasis on sticking to a routine can generate even more anxiety. So just a basic daily plan of action will do.

Facilitate joint activities with your kids. Do things together. Find activities that can be enjoyed by the whole family. Sometimes this can be difficult, especially with teenagers. So don't force it. But at least put the offer on the table. Hopefully this will encourage the teenager to engage. It may also aid in fostering emotional expression. Again, keep it simple. An elaborate plan is often too much and can lead to frustration.

When to get help?

If your child or adolescent seems particularly distressed or if there has been a dramatic change in behaviour, it is probably best to have them assessed by a mental health practitioner. In younger children, anxiety can manifest in irritability or tantrums. Young kids also often complain of physical symptoms, such as headaches or tummy aches. Teenagers also tend to become more irritable when they are anxious. They may also be more withdrawn, and avoid certain situations. Some may become obsessed with certain themes, such as safety or health.

It is also important to note that anxiety and depression often co-occur. So be aware of the symptoms of depression as well. If you suspect your child may have symptoms of either, it is advisable that he or she be assessed by a mental health practitioner.

During these strange times, a rise in anxiety can be expected. However, it is important to ensure that young people have the tools they need to cope. Adults need to provide those tools. At the end of the day, our kids do what we do, so it is important that we practice what we preach as well. So, looking after your own mental health and finding ways to manage your own anxiety will also hugely benefit your kids. Take care.

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