How do I spot if my child has . . . an anxiety disorder?

AuthorSheila Wayman
Published date19 October 2021
Publication titleIrish Times (Dublin, Ireland)
In an analysis of global data, researchers have estimated a 26 per cent higher incidence of anxiety disorders than would have been expected had the virus not hit. Young people and women are more likely to be affected than older people and men, according to the report in the UK medical journal, the Lancet.

"Youth have been impacted by the closures of schools and higher education facilities, and wider restrictions inhibiting young people from peer interactions," said the lead author, Dr Damian Santomauro of the University of Queensland, as reported by the Guardian.

Drawing on 48 studies published between January 1st, 2020, and January 29th, 2021, the international team estimated there were 374 million cases of anxiety disorders worldwide in 2020 - 72.6 million more than would have been expected. It also found a 28 per cent rise in depressive disorders.

Ireland is no exception to this upward trend.

Pre-COVID-19, between one in four and one in five children/teenagers would have an anxiety disorder but not all of those to a severe degree, says consultant adolescent psychiatrist Dr Aileen Murtagh of St Patrick's Mental Health Services.

"Since the onset of the global pandemic, there's no doubt about it, these referrals are exploding for a variety of factors," she says. Young people are struggling to reintegrate after the cocooning, lockdowns and school closures.

A rise in "school phobia" has been reported and psychotherapist Stella O'Malley is one of many health professionals who is seeing more school refusal. Many families struggling with this have viewed it as "their own personal tragedy", she suggests, not realising "it is a symptom of a really difficult societal event".

Yet, anxiety is a perfectly normal human emotion. None of us lives without it, from our days of "separation anxiety" as an infant onwards, so when does it become an issue? Whether your child is at primary school, secondary school or a college student, you'll want to know if their worrying is at a healthy level or verging on a "disorder".

What is problematic anxiety in a child? Anxiety becomes a problem when it affects a child's sense of who they are, their relationships and their engagement with school and other activities, summarises clinical psychologist Dr Malie Coyne in her book,

Love in, Love Out: A Compassionate Approach to Parenting your Anxious Child. It's when "a child's worries - whether they're thoughts, feelings or physical sensations - are making them avoid situations, which in turn restricts their learning and enjoyment of life", she explains.

I struggle with anxiety myself and I can see it in my child, have I passed this on? A genetic predisposition is believed to be one possible factor, along with learned behaviour within a family, as well as environmental triggers and experiences.

However, if you are inclined to anxiety yourself, it is possible you are overthinking your child's anxiety. An anxious parent tends to presume a child's small amount of anxiety is on a level with their own, says O'Malley, author of Fragile, a self-help book that looks at the rising tide of anxiety.

"They know how awful it can be; they presume their child's anxiety is that level and sadly it can make it...

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