There's been quite a bit in the news recently about a possible increase in younger children experiencing signs of anxiety. The rise of technology use has been named as one of the reasons for this. It's always difficult to know whether there's an actual increase in signs of mental health difficulties or whether our ever growing awareness means we are noticing these signs more - or in younger children. It's probably unlikely that there's one factor alone that causes mental health issues but certainly technology use is increasing and having an impact on our lives and relationships in many ways.
It can be useful to begin to think about what anxiety is before we look for signs in our children. Firstly, anxiety can be normal in many situations. When we talk about problems with anxiety we are talking about what would be a more extreme response to situations or when the anxiety is present without an obvious reason. For example, it's normal to feel anxious and nervous when doing something new or that we find difficult. We might notice butterflies in our tummies, our hands might be a bit clammy or shaky and we might need to visit the toilet more often. We will each have our own individual responses that we learn to recognise over time as patterns of behaviour and feelings that arise when find ourselves in these nerve-wracking situations. Children need our help to learn to recognise these signs. If we are able to manage these feelings and get through the situation and perhaps next time not be quite so anxious we would see this as a normal response to a particular situation. If, however, we are unable to manage the feelings and they escalate , possibly even preventing us from doing what we need to do or want to do, we may become concerned that anxiety is a problem for us. Similarly, if the feelings continue beyond the situation and spread to other situations or we develop a general feeling of anxiety, then it could be that we are showing signs of a problem with anxiety.
It also good to recognise that anxiety can be helpful to us in some ways. Having feelings of nervousness or feeling anxious can prime us to take more care or be alert and prepare ourselves better. This can be very helpful if we need to prepare for a test or to speak in front of others. Our anxious feelings can prompt us to spend more time practising. Our anxious feelings can also trigger a warning for us sometimes. It can tell us something is not quite right. This happens because our brain tunes into our basic fight or flight responses and wants to keep us safe. Our brain tunes into anything that may be dangerous for us and alerts us through our body reactions. Feeling anxious can teach us a lot about our lives and what is most important to us.
Sometimes children will show signs of anxiety in relation to situations we would not expect them to feel anxious about. This can be related to their personality or previous life experiences they and the family have had. Some children are more sensitive to new situations than others, for example. By noticing and helping children to find words to express their feelings we can help them to adjust and manage the situation. Hopefully, over time they learn to feel more confident and less anxious but they may need adult support for a while.
It can also be helpful for parents to recognise that their children are watching their responses to day to day events, including when the adults are feeling anxious. Children will use their parents as models for their own interpretation of the world. If parents are overly cautious, for example, children will take on the worries as well. Finding a balance between raising concerns and expressing our feelings while promoting confidence can be quite a challenge but important so that children get a balanced view of the world as well as learn how to name feelings and respond to the many situations they face.