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Childhood anxiety disorders:
Children experience anxiety too

by Jessica R. Gera of Toronto

Parents aim to teach their kids all kinds of life lessons. They ensure that their children know that they are to look both ways before they cross the street; to always say please and thank you; to respect their elders; and that sharing is caring. They ask their kids all types of questions to make sure that they understand what to do in certain situations. “Sally, what’s our home phone number?” “If a stranger asks you to get into his/her car, what should you do?” “What does a policeman/policewoman look like?”

I’d like to add one more question to this list; a question that is very rarely asked of our children. “Do you feel worried?”

Adults often question “what’s wrong with me” when they feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety and panic. If a grown adult cannot quite understand this pervasive feeling of anxiety, then how can we expect a young child to make sense of it? They can’t. They need to be watched. They need to be asked.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a condition where you experience chronic anxiety and overwhelming worry. This is not a simple case of ‘butterflies in your stomach’ or a simple feeling of nervousness before you write an exam. This is persistent and pervasive feelings of anxiety and often, helplessness.

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada (ADAC), a good measurement to use on yourself to assess if you are suffering from GAD is to assess if you are excessively worrying about 2+ issues within a 6 month period--e.g., health and your children, finances and family troubles. In addition, physical symptoms are normally present at this time, including, but not limited to, excessive sweating, heart palpitations, muscle discomfort and being easily fatigued.

According to the ADAC, adults wait as long as 10 years before they seek help. Most convince themselves they are just a ‘natural born worrier.’

Michel J. Dugas Ph.D explains that 1 in 20 Canadians do suffer from GAD, in his article entitled Generalized Anxiety Disorder. A general misconception is that GAD only occurs in adulthood. This is incorrect, as children can and do begin to show signs of GAD as early as 12 years of age. This condition is more prominent in girls than boys, as statistics show us that 2 out of every 3 children with GAD are indeed girls. Half of these children diagnosed with GAD in their childhood years will continue to suffer from this and other anxiety disorders into their adulthood. Perhaps with as much awareness as possible, we can reduce this “half” to nil. Let’s try.

So what’s the game plan? How are we going to overcome GAD? Detection is key.

It is crucial to detect signs amongst your children as soon as possible. For example, little Jimmy is 12 years old and shows quite a bit of concern over his Grandpa. Grandpa doesn’t seem to be eating enough or sleeping enough and this seems to be concerning Jimmy quite a bit. Little Dana seems to be quite concerned about the finances of the home. While she doesn’t use the term; ‘finances,’ she seems quite concerned about ‘not really needing that cereal mommy, it’s okay, let’s buy something else.’ More often than not, this is misinterpreted as Jimmy or Dana just being very loving children, very sensitive, and even just being extremely mature for their age.

Other signs can be seen in how these children behave. For example, little Dana asks her mother repeatedly to check her homework just to ‘really make sure’ that there are no mistakes. Even after obtaining her mother’s approval, she seems to still worry. Little Jimmy continues to call his grandpa just to ‘make sure he’s okay,’ even though he may have just spoken with him a short while ago.

In addition, the following forms of behaviour are high indicators of children suffering from anxiety, according to the Anxiety BC information web site: clinging, crying, and/or tantrums when you separate from your child, excessive shyness, avoiding social situations, constant worry, avoiding situations or places because of fears, complaints of frequent stomachaches or headaches, and experiencing sudden and frequent panic attacks. (See http://www.anxietybc.com.)

So where does it come from? GAD didn’t just show up on planet earth yesterday. It has its roots and its foundations in 3 main areas: 1) Biological 2) Environmental and 3) Psychological.

It is imperative to understand the function and the importance of neurotransmitters when understanding the concept of GAD. Within the brain, these special chemicals known as neurotransmitters carry out many very important functions. Their main function is to assist in transferring messages through the brain’s nerve cells. Each nerve cell is called a neuron, and every human being has anywhere between ten and one hundred billion neurons in our brains. Once a human being has some form of a reaction, such as an emotion or thought, our neurons transmit messages in the form of electrical impulses from one cell to another. It is difficult to learn more and concretely say what exactly the link is between neurotransmitters and GAD and/or depression, because neurotransmitters are extremely difficult to study. They are present in very tiny quantities and disappear once they have been used. The general understanding is that in some human beings, ample amounts of neurotransmitters are not released from the brain, which often results in GAD and/or clinical depression.

Studies have also shown that environmental factors contribute to the likelihood of a child being affected by anxiety. The ADAC states that those children who attend to the needs of parents and guardians without having their own needs met as children are at a high risk of suffering from anxiety in their childhood and adulthood.

On a psychological level, some human beings suffer from what the ADAC classifies as an extreme “intolerance of insecurity.” All human beings on a daily basis find themselves in unpredictable and challenging situations where they must make decisions about unanticipated events in their lives. Psychologically, many people are simply unable to do this; the ‘not knowing’ of what is in store for them in the future causes feelings of angst and perpetual worry.

If we compare the amount of “say no to drugs” and “don’t smoke” advertisements on television in the 1980’s and now, what will we find? Or when the internet first came about, how much awareness was there about keeping tabs on the sites that our kids are visiting? How about now? As a world we have built awareness about all types of issues so that we can discourage young people today from making the wrong choices. The time has now come to do the same with anxiety disorders. We need to educate parents to be aware of this issue, the same way we do with smoking, internet safety, drug awareness, and staying in school.

The ADAC is currently working in collaboration with the Anxiety BC Association to promote their website as much as possible so that awareness can be built on this very serious issue.

Copyright © 2008 Jessica Gera

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