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Are we overthinking childhood anxiety?

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

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Kids may be misreading everyday stress as anxiety, childhood resilience expert Dr Mandie Shean explains in the latest episode of Edith Cowan University’s Body of Knowledge podcast.

Dr Shean, from ECU’s School of Education, says while the rate of kids being diagnosed with anxiety is not actually increasing, more and more young people are self-reporting that they are feeling stressed.

“What may be happening is that kids are overjudging normal stress as anxiety,” she said.

“I think that they could be reading the wrong signs in their own bodies. Things like increased heartrate and feeling tense are normal parts of facing a challenge and not necessarily anxiety.”

Stressing out students

Many children report feeling a lot of pressure from teachers and parents to do well academically, Dr Shean says.

“There’s also surveys that have found that around 75 per cent of children report putting pressure on themselves to succeed,” she said.

“There’s this belief that succeeding academically is the only thing you can do in life, and if you don’t do that there’s something wrong with you. There’s a real problem when we allow so much of our worth to be tied to doing well at school.”

Long-term impacts

Genuine anxiety experienced in the early years can persist well into later life, Dr Shean explains in the podcast.

She says childhood anxiety is linked to a number of social problems in adulthood, ranging from an increased risk of unemployment and homelessness to getting stuck in bad relationships.

“These kinds of outcomes have the effect of making people’s world’s smaller and smaller and smaller,” she said.

“What worries me is when we see someone with mild anxiety, we kind of lose that person. That person had an opportunity and potential, but the anxiety makes your life small and you stop taking risks and that’s a loss not just for the individual, but also for society.”

What can adults do?

The natural desire to comfort someone who is feeling anxious can actually make the problem worse, according to Dr Shean.

“The classical conditioning model tells us that you actually may be reinforcing the behaviour by comforting someone. So if I’m anxious and stressed and I come to you and you give me lots of love, that feeling gets connected to love, so we have to be really careful that we’re not encouraging the anxiety,” she says.

“So support is good, but you shouldn’t overdo it, and it’s also important to time your support. For example, when I was teaching, I would say to the student ‘I know you’re feeling a bit stressed about this, here’s some things you can do like taking slow breaths, start on section one and I’ll come back to you’. Then when I come back I would offer that support.”

Another way to help young people deal with anxiety is to break up stressful activities into small, manageable tasks.

“Just because a child is anxious about something you shouldn’t let them get out of doing it, but you can break it up into small tasks. Because once you have achieved something you can build on that success,” Dr Shean says.

“Success is such a good thing to experience because you can look back and say ‘I did that and I can do this again’.”

Managing feelings

One of the things that could be driving the increase in the number of kids reporting they feel anxious could be a lack of tolerance for negative feelings, Dr Shean says.

“So, let’s just say that you told me that what I’m wearing is the worst outfit you have ever seen and that makes me feel sad. It’s managing that feeling that’s important. I don’t feel okay about it, but that’s fine; it’s a normal feeling.

“Part of overcoming challenges and living your life is having those feelings. I feel like we may have made life so great for our young people that they get surprised when they encounter a negative or difficult feeling.”

You can listen to the full episode of ECU’s Body of Knowledge podcast featuring Dr Shean here.

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