Anxiety is often misunderstood – particularly in children. It’s fairly easy to tell that your child is anxious if they are afraid of the dark or they don’t cope well with separation. Likewise, many parents know that their son or daughter is shy around new people or that they they are not great risk takers. But anxiety has many disguises and hidden anxiety can go undetected for years.
For busy parents, it can be hard to know how to manage a child who is constantly interrupting and always talking back. It’s easy to get frustrated when you can never have a conversation without your 6 year old butting in. It can be exhausting having to answer the same questions over and over again. And it can be distressing dealing with a child or adolescent who follows you around the house hurling what comes close to abuse. Our parental instinct tells us that we should be tougher with these kids who constantly interrupt, talk back, or lose their cool. So we try to up the ante – bringing in harsher punishments. But the behaviour often worsens. Why? Because anxiety can be masked by anger and aggression, checking, belligerence, disruptiveness, and attention-seeking behaviour.
Anxiety affects somewhere between 10-20% of Australians. The earlier we can detect signs of anxiety, the easier it is to manage it. Our children often have no idea that they are anxious, so they won’t be the ones to tell us. We need to look out for the signs I have mentioned above and make sure that we don’t exacerbate things by punishing them or inadvertently reinforcing their behaviour.
How to help a child with disguised anxiety:
- Normalise anxiety by saying how common it is and reassure them that there are ways to manage it
- Tell them what worries you and what helps you to calm the worries
- Reassure them that you can work on this together
- Encourage them to be in tune with their bodies so that they notice when their tummy is jumpy or their heart is racing
- Teach them how to slow down their breathing using their diaphragm
- Ask them what they’re worried about, instead of focusing too much on the tone in which they’re saying something
- Try not to reinforce attention-seeking behaviours. Praise them for waiting patiently instead of interrupting.
- Encourage them to make decisions and not be afraid of getting things wrong
- If your child is not able to function properly at home or at school because of their anxiety, consider seeking professional help – either within a group setting or one-on-one