A teenage boy wakes up with a stomach ache that keeps him from going to school and writing his exam. A 12 year-old girl has headaches throughout the day at her new school where nothing is familiar. The parents of a child who has just been diagnosed with ADHD avoids family events because they are worried about what will be said or asked. The sister of a boy who has cancer is afraid to visit him at the hospital.
What do all of these people have in common? Anxiety.
Anxiety is built into us and is a key factor to our “fight or flight” response to danger. It has and continues to be a significant mental health challenge for children, teens and parents in 2019. Anxiety Canada estimates that over 20% of children and adolescents will experience anxiety and the Canadian Mental Health Association says that 3% of children and youth will actually be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Their website does an amazing job of listing the kinds of anxiety that impact young people and most importantly provides common symptoms and signs of anxiety. I highly recommend investing some time on their webpage. The CBC reported in 2016 that 41% of grade 12 students experienced “high distress”.
What is not listed there are some of the longer term problems that can result from anxiety. A teen who does not learn strategies to lower their anxiety may lose their friends. The lack of a social life can also lead to depression and substance abuse. Stomach problems over time caused by anxiety can lead to ulcers and other conditions. In the extreme, anxiety can also lead to self harm, suicidal thoughts and real attempts at suicide.
As a parent, one of the best ways to understand if your child is experiencing anxiety is to ask them and observe their behaviours. Talking to their teachers is also a way to understand your child’s stressors. I have often suggested to parents that they should make themselves known to their school’s guidance team and principals. A productive relationship with open communication is a fantastic way to help your child.
Empathy can also go a long way towards helping your child. Let them know that you understand that they are not happy and that you are there to help. If they are getting low marks, tell them that you love them and give them a hug. Parents are often stressed too – as a parent I can vouch for this! Try to find a way to tell your children that you can also feel anxiety. Knowing that mom and dad share in their feelings can help a child realize they are not alone. It might also make it easier for them to confide in you if they know that you are not hiding your own anxiety. Always keep in mind that they (or you!) are not being stressed by choice and, just like when you are under pressure, what they need is support and love.