Children experiencing anxiety often look very different than their adult counterparts. This is very confusing for parents, teachers, and other adult caregivers, because when a child is demonstrating anger, behavioral outbursts, or defiance – often anxiety is not the first thought that comes to mind! An anxious adult can usually put some words to their anxious experience, and have life experiences that help shape and define their anxiety. However, for children, an emotional vocabulary is often minimal and it can be very hard to put into words their inner experience – and so what we see outwardly can provide us clues!
As we can see on sites like Childmind.org, dedicated to mental health and wellness in children, anxiety disorders can be very diverse, and have very different origins! For some children, separation anxiety is prevalent, and being away from a caregiver causes reactions ranging from withdrawal and sadness, to outright tantrums and defiance. Other children have specific phobias, and may have what appears to be an overreaction to something common, like a thunderstorm. Children are not immune to other anxiety disorders, like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. A child with OCD may develop rituals that helps calm the inner voice that we call “intrusive thoughts” or may do seemingly senseless behaviors (compulsions) that the child feels has some protective value. Disrupting these rituals and compulsions often lead to behavioral outbursts – and this is confusing for a parent, because they seem very illogical to an outsider looking in – but usually the OCD is giving the child a “reason” to have these behaviors.
Because children have a more limited emotional vocabulary, traditional talk therapy of attempting to gain insight and counter automatic thoughts can be difficult with children. Instead, through outlets such as play therapy, a child can work through their anxiety and develop coping strategies. If a specific trauma triggered the anxiety, such as a car accident, a play therapist may work with the child to develop a story that helps work through the difficulties that has arisen, because of the trauma. Other children may demonstrate selective mutism which occurs when a child only speaks in certain situations or to certain people, but is otherwise silent and uncommunicative. Play is an important way to communicate when language is not accessible to a child.
Our Therapy Hive providers have experience and expertise in treating anxiety in children, among our many other specialities! In fact, a Therapy Hive member co-published a book to help children with their anxiety using humor, animals, and relatable experiences. Dr. Jaime Crowley will be co-presenting with her co-author Dr. Kristen Ohlenforst next month to helping professionals in the DFW Metroplex area on helping kids “Bark Back to Worries” based on their book “Moose The Worry Mutt Goes to Doggie Daycare.” For more information on this event, or on helping children with anxiety, be sure to visit www.therapyhive.com and check out our list of providers – we can help!