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Anxiety

Air Date: 08/17/10 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at cheryl.erwin@sbcglobal.net.When adults think about childhood, they often picture rosy-cheeked youngsters playing happily together, romping at a playground, hitting endless baseballs over the fence, or riding bikes into the sunset. And for many children, their young years are indeed a time of pleasure, learning, and healthy relationships. For a growing number of children and adolescents, however, life is not nearly so comfortable. As it turns out, the number one reason children and teenagers pay a visit to someone like me a therapist or counselor is anxiety. And the numbers of anxious children are increasing every day. Most people worry from time to time. But for anxious children, worrying takes up an incredible amount of time and energy. Children worry about death, that someone they love will become sick or have an accident. They worry about pleasing the people they love, about getting good grades or performing well at their soccer game or music recital. Children worry about wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, and they worry about terrorist attacks, kidnappers, burglars, and nuclear bombs. And lately, I've talked to a number of kids who are worried about global warming and who feel deep concern about what the world will be like by the time they get a chance to enjoy it. For some kids, worry goes even deeper. Some children fear germs and illness so much that they spend a large amount of their time washing their hands, showering, or avoiding public places and touching things other people have touched. They worry so much about their grades that they can't seem to do their homework or finish an exam; they are constantly changing and checking answers and may erase their papers so often that they put holes in them. Worry and anxiety may become much more than a feeling; they may become the central fact of a child's existence. Worry, by the way, is a very normal emotion. In fact, it serves a valuable function in our lives. Studies show that a reasonable amount of stress and anxiety may actually improve academic performance; after all, concern about grades is why most kids study and work hard at their classes. And moderate amounts of fear do motivate us to be cautious, to take care of our health, and to stay safe. All of that is well and good. For some folks, however, anxiety is crippling. Even young children can have anxiety or panic attacks and some may develop what is known as obsessive-compulsive disorder, an extreme form of worrying that involves both obsessions, and rituals or compulsions to deal with them. Sometimes adults don't take children's worries seriously. We tell them "there's nothing to be afraid of" or promise them that "everything will be fine." Worry, however, appears to be a human trait that is influenced by our individual brain biology. In people who are prone to anxiety and worry, there is a problem with the way the brain handles messages related to doubt or fear. Neurobiologist and therapist Daniel Siegel of UCLA calls this having an "overactive checker" the part of your brain that is responsible for keeping you safe is working so hard that it gets in the way of making decisions or living a normal life. The bottom line for parents is that you really can't tell your child not to worry. Nor is anxiety just a bad habit to be managed with discipline and lectures. Anxiety and conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder often run in families; anxious children may grow up to be anxious adults who have anxious children of their own. If you suspect or know for a fact that your child spends a lot of time worrying (or if you do), there are some things you can do to be helpful. First, listen. Don't offer advice unless invited, but listen carefully to your child's fears and worries. Take time to let your child know that you understand and accept his feelings; after all, this is indeed a scary world and like it or not, bad things do happen to good people. Second, don't make promises you can't keep. Telling a child nothing bad will happen, that you'll always be around to take care of him, or that his fears are groundless isn't helpful. Rather than trying to make your child's anxiety go away, focus on helping him develop coping skills. You can teach him to do conscious breathing when he feels afraid, or work on problem-solving with him so he has tools to use when he's feeling worried. If your child is having panic attacks or performs rituals designed to make him feel better (like hand-washing, lining things up, or counting), you might want to consider talking to a therapist who works with children. By the way, adults also experience deep anxiety and can benefit from learning the skills to manage it. Anxiety may be a part of being human, but it needn't take the joy out of childhood. Listen well, be supportive, and ask for help if you or your child needs it. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.