Anxiety disorders in children need treatment – or they could affect the rest of their lives!
It can be tough not knowing what to do when your toddler won’t sleep because of the monster under the bed, or your teenager refuses to go school because they don’t have the right backpack, and fear they won’t have friends.
Childhood anxiety can be very difficult for everyone involved but it is by no means uncommon. Anxiety disorders are some of the most commonly occurring psychiatric conditions in children. It is estimated that 5.7–12.8% meet the criteria for anxiety disorders.
While it is normal for everyone to experience some fear or anxiety at times, anxiety disorders have a profound impact on a child’s functioning and development if they are not addressed. This can impact them for the rest of their lives. It is crucial that anxiety disorders are taken seriously and that children receive appropriate treatments and interventions.
Anxiety disorders vs Normal fears and anxiety
How do you know whether your child is experiencing normal fears and anxiety – or an anxiety disorder?
The term anxiety is used a lot these days, but not everyone is clear on the clinical definition.
It’s important to know the difference. Not only is it normal to experience fear in certain circumstances. It’s a crucial survival mechanism. It becomes disordered when the anxiety has a greater persistence and severity than is commonly seen, and when it has a profound impact on day to day functioning.
I see it as a faulty alarm system. Alarm systems are designed to alert you to danger. An alarm system that is too sensitive and is constantly being triggered is no longer useful in keeping you safe and creates a number of problems. Anxiety disorders can include conditions such as: generalised anxiety disorder, OCD, panic disorder, specific phobias, and PTSD.
Anxiety in children may manifest in the following ways:
- Restlessness and irritability
- Difficulty sleeping or staying asleep
- Excessive worrying about future events or situations
- Physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, headaches, and nausea
- Avoidance of social situations or activities
- Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
- Obsessive or repetitive behaviours
- Panic attacks or fear of losing control
Treatments for anxiety disorders
Many parents fear that treatment will involve medication, but this is not the only form of treatment available. By no means every child needs medication. There are other highly effective forms of therapy.
Drama Therapy has proven to be an extremely successful intervention for children, since it incorporates both relaxation/mindfulness techniques, as well as play – both of which have been shown to be extremely successful in treating anxiety.
What is Drama Therapy?
I get asked this question a lot. People will often say “Is that therapy for actors/dramatic people?” or “So you’re a drama teacher.” As Drama Therapy is a relatively new field, I feel it is important to clarify what it is.
Drama Therapy is a form of Psychotherapy, which utilises creative techniques drawn from Drama and Theatre. The specific techniques used in therapy will depend on what the therapist and client feel would be of most benefit. It is an active, collaborative process.
It can involve creative techniques such as role taking, movement, storytelling and story making, play, drawing, etc. It allows the client to find creative ways in which to express themselves and work through difficulties they might be facing.
How can drama therapy specifically help children with anxiety disorders?
As mentioned, drama therapy is a creatively expressive and play-based form of therapy, that incorporates mindfulness and relaxation techniques.
- Play Therapy
Play has been shown to be crucial in children’s learning and development. It is how children make sense of their world. It is often through play that they process difficult events or emotions. Play provides children with a means of expressing things that are unable to express verbally, due their verbal development, or the emotional difficulty of what they are expressing.
Through play and creative expression, children may be able to express and process their anxieties. They may be able to use play and creativity to come up with solutions to difficulties and gain a sense of confidence and empowerment. They may also be able to “play out” anxiety, provoking scenarios in a safe and supportive environment and, thus, start to feel less anxiety around them.
Most importantly, play and creative expression are therapeutic in and of themselves as they provide children with a space for fun and freedom of expression which naturally helps to alleviate anxiety.
- Mindfulness/relaxation techniques
These techniques have also been shown to have a number of mental health benefits, particularly in helping children manage anxiety. From a neurological perspective, anxiety activates the sympathetic nervous system, creating what we know as a fight, flight or freeze response. This results in physical symptoms such as fast, shallow breathing and an increased heart rate.
These techniques, involving breathing exercises and body relaxation, work by physically calming this nervous system response. This deactivates the sympathetic nervous system and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Over time, the child learns to regulate more effectively in their everyday lives. These techniques also provide tools to be used in moments of anxiety.
If you believe your child may suffer from anxiety disorder, don’t ignore it
There is something you can do. There are appropriate and effective treatments available, besides medication. It could make all the difference to the way your child functions in the world, now and in the future.
I believe in Drama Therapy because I have seen it work. It provides children with effective and professional psychotherapy in a way that works best for them.