Anxious children: Treating a crippling disorder

When we think of people who suffer from anxiety we tend to envision adults who are excessively worried about money, work, or a relationship. But anxiety isn’t the purview of adulthood. Kids suffer too.
Children’s lives can be hampered by excessive anxiety caused by day-to-day activities like going to school, being separated from parents, or worrying about world events like last winter’s H1N1 pandemic.
“Even young children can suffer from anxiety,” says Dr. Chandra Magill, a psychiatrist at The Montreal Children’s Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre. “It is perfectly normal for a child to feel anxious from time to time, like just before a big school exam. However, parents need to seek help for their child when his anxiety impairs his ability to enjoy and lead a normal life or when it impacts the family’s functioning.” Dr. Magill gives an example: a child who suffers from separation anxiety might panic at the thought of being left with a babysitter. To help the child cope, the parents routinely choose to cancel their social engagements.
What does anxiety feel like?

What does anxiety feel like?

Anxiety expresses itself in many ways: excessive fear, panic and worry are common emotional manifestations. There might be combined physical symptoms such as chronic headaches, stomach pains and body aches. Studies show that up to 20 per cent of children suffer from excessive anxiety. The disorder affects girls slightly more than boys.
Dr. Magill says excessive anxiety isn’t something children usually outgrow. In fact, left untreated, an excessively anxious child can grow up to be an excessively anxious teenager and adult.
The treatment

The treatment

“I never tell children I will cure their anxiety,” says Dr. Magill, “I offer to help them gain more control over their anxiety so that they can do the things they want and enjoy their life.”
Often, Dr. Magill’s treatment of choice is cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). This is often combined with other treatments, for example if the anxiety is severe she might combine CBT with medication.
CBT is not a long-term therapy. The sessions typically last a few months, depending on the severity of the anxiety and the complexity of the family situation. The goal is to help the child develop coping skills to master his anxiety. During each session, the child, parents and therapist develop strategies that enable the child to face his fear one small step at a time.
As an example, Dr. Magill describes a child with separation anxiety who can’t be in a different room than his mum. Together they might decide that they’ll start with the mother staying in the kitchen while the child stays in the very next room for one minute. During this time, the child is given strategies to use to cope with his anxiety. Over time, they gradually lengthen the time and distance apart. Using this technique, the child learns to conquer his anxiety.
During the therapy sessions, parents learn to reinforce the behaviours they want to see in their child. They might want to praise their child for playing alone in his room. Parents learn to encourage their child to face scary situations to overcome fear.
Dr. Magill says studies show early intervention not only helps children cope with excessive anxiety, it also provides them with a degree of protection against developing other anxieties and depression in adulthood.
If your child suffers from excessive anxiety, mention it to your pediatrician. You can also call your local CLSC to see if they provide any services. To find the CLSC closest to your home visit or call Info-santé by dialling 811.