Anxiety disorders are the most common mental, emotional, and behavioral problems among young people. Approximately 13% of children ages 9 to 17 experience some kind of anxiety disorder. Not surprisingly, research shows that those who have learning disabilities and face daily frustrations, failures, and embarrassment at school are more likely to worry excessively about academic performance, social status, and prospects for future success than their peers without LD.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is the result of perceived risk or danger. Because it is based on personal perception, what causes anxiety in one child may not be a problem for another child.
There are essentially three components of anxiety:
1. Cognition (thoughts): Children with anxiety tend to perceive danger and threats readily. They experience false alarms, overestimate the probability of catastrophe, and underestimate their ability to cope and survive.
2. Physical symptoms: These include heart pounding, sweating, tension, difficulty breathing, nausea, stomach upset, and/or insomnia.
3. Behaviors: Children exit a situation as soon as they perceive danger or have uncomfortable physical symptoms.
Strategies To Alleviate Anxiety
Parents and teachers are on the front lines of early detection and intervention. The key to helping is to prioritize the anxious child’s psychological and emotional wellbeing. Pushing beyond his or her limits leads to anxiety and school burnout, among other problems. Instead, utilize the strategies that follow to help alleviate the anxiety your child is experiencing.
- Use the “feeling” thermometer as an index of intensity and change in emotions. This is used to teach children how to differentiate, quantify, and communicate levels of anxiety. Children are asked to describe their feelings on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is a “piece of cake” and 10 is “out of control.”
- Introduce the concept of strengths and weaknesses into the family as part of the normal vocabulary. This is the idea that everybody in the family has things they are good at and things they are not so good at.
- Decrease expectations if striving is a source of your child’s anxiety. Instead, play off his strengths to help him feel confident in his areas of competency.
- Children with LD in middle school may still need support from home. Parents sometimes think a middle-school child should be able to take care of herself. If she doesn’t believe she is able to do so, her anxiety will increase.
- Be aware of young adolescents’ social interactions. A study of middle-school children with LD found they feared that their friends would discover their LD and that they wouldn’t be considered cool. Consider shifting to private remediation and away from public remediation.
- Minimize communication with an overly aroused or distraught child. When she is agitated it is best to wait until she calms down before trying to engage in conversation.
- Build an exercise program into your child’s daily routine.
- Build resiliency by teaching him to handle anxiety by himself, not by handling it for him.
- Help her acquire and use relaxation skills.
- Set a positive example by modeling the behavior you want her to learn. Teach her to recognize the connection between thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and physical symptoms; label her feelings; and accept and live with some uncertainty.
- Provide for you-and-me-alone-time to enhance the positive relationship with your child.
Use the “Four D’s” to help determine if your child’s anxiety is reaching the level of a disorder that needs professional assessment and treatment.
Disproportion: The anxiety is excessive, unreasonable and out of proportion to the situation or trigger.
Disruption: The anxiety interferes with normal functions such as eating, going to school, doing homework, or sleeping.
Distress: The child is distraught and easily upset. The anxiety is burdensome and bothersome resulting in unhappiness and misery.
Duration: To meet the diagnostic criteria of an anxiety disorder, a significant level of anxiety should be present consistently over a period of time.
Janneta K. Bohlander is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She specializes is working with children and adults dealing with anxiety disorders and attention and learning difficulties.