Anxiety disorder (or problem) is one of the most common mental health concerns in both children and adults around the world. It often goes unnoticed in many children, especially those who are quiet and ‘well behaved’, while other children act out, are disruptive, and are tagged ‘bad’ kids. Anxiety disorder not attended to early enough can increase the chances of depression, substance use/abuse, inter and intra-personal conflicts and so on later on.
Anxiety disorder in children consist of persistent fears and worries that disrupt their ability to interact with others in school, age-appropriate social situations and even with themselves. There is an increased incidence of anxiety disorder in children with parents with anxiety disorder.
There is some interaction between hereditary components and environmental factors such as learning impairments and family problems in anxiety disorder. Just as a child can inherit their parents’ eye colour, red hair, near-sightedness, a child can also inherit their parent’s tendency for excessive anxiety. The age of onset of anxiety in children varies but it occurs more often in adolescents and older children.
The brain produces some special chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These chemicals control a lot of things in the body including how a person feels and the response to those feelings. Serotonin and Dopamine are examples of these chemicals and when there is an imbalance in their levels, feelings of anxiety and depression can occur.
Parents may say from a young age that they could tell something was different about their children and while some wait, hoping they would ‘grow out of it’ others view the anxious behaviour as normal since for the most part one or both of the parents behaved in a similar way. The content of an individual’s worry tends to vary with age, with children and adolescents being more concerned about competence, performance, and results. Adolescents may come across as perfectionists, anxious to fit in, so they require a lot of reassurance about their performance and other things that they worry about.
Therefore, it is important for children to have the approval of their parents and guardians. It gives them the confidence to trust and the boldness to communicate their emotions especially when feelings of fear or anxiety set in. If you notice that your child is worried and anxious on most days, the most important thing to do is to seek professional help. Physical punishment, spiritual ‘deliverance’ sessions are not only unhelpful, they are emotionally painful and leave a negative psychological imprint on the child. The goal is to give them confidence in themselves, their performance, and not let them sink them deeper in the quagmire of emotional distress.
Cognitive behavioural therapy and medications may be required in the management of anxiety disorders. It is okay to seek help for your child; needing these interventions does not make your child ‘crazy’. It should be treated just like other ailments, the same way you seek help when you notice your child has a fever is the same way you should consult your doctor for persistent anxiety in your child.
Dr Omowunmi H. Thanni is a physician with a medical degree from Olabisi Onabanjo University Ago-Iwoye (Mb.ChB. Ogun). She is an Infant and Childhood Mental Health enthusiast who is passionate about supporting children with mental health concerns.
She is also an Early Childcare practitioner with experience observing children dealing with grief, the various psychosocial presentations, and the impact on their families. She is also a Child and Family Volunteer who serves as a healthy support system for children and families who have experienced the loss of one or both parents to terminal illnesses.
She is devoted to debunking cultural myths surrounding childhood mental health and enlightening the community on proper prevention and intervention strategies.