So, you think your child is suffering from anxiety – what now?
Firstly, know that you are not alone! A 2015 Australian population study found that 7% of children between 4 and 17 years of age had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in the previous 12 months. Worryingly, this figure is expected to increase further in the years to come.
Now, anxiety and stress is something that we all experience at some point in our lives and it’s not always bad news. In fact, controlled levels of stress can have a positive impact, linked to improved performance and reduced effects of ageing on the body. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal even famously details in her popular Ted talk ways to make stress work to your advantage.
The trouble exists though when feelings of anxiety become prolonged, persistent and problematic, particularly for younger minds. Further compounded by the vicious cycle of heightened anxiety, often leading to reduced quality of sleep, potential substance abuse and depression. This is of particular concern for those students in secondary and tertiary education who are undergoing increased education-related stress together with physical and hormonal challenges.
Needless to say, it can be difficult as a parent of an anxious child or teenager to know what you can do to help lighten their mental load and mitigate the potential long term effects of prolonged anxiety. Not only for their mental health during this vital period but also in supporting their wellbeing into the future.
So how can you support and treat your teenager’s anxiety?
There are countless herbal formulations that have shown success in reducing the symptoms associated with anxiety, such as withania, passionflower, valerian, chamomile and lemon balm. From a dose-specific daily herbal tonic to a calming herbal tea in times of acute stress, there are various ways to safely administer herbal medicine to your child. As with all herbs, each will have a particular affinity with a different aspect of anxiety (such as insomnia, a racing heart rate or stomach upset). With this in mind, it is highly recommended that you speak with a qualified practitioner before self-prescribing.
The role of nutrition
Nutrient deficiencies have a common correlation with the development of anxiety conditions both in adults and children alike. This is especially relevant for adolescents due to the increased nutrient requirements caused by hormonal and physical changes that occur during this period.
Unfortunately the majority of Australians eat a diet high in processed and packaged foods, with only 20% of the population thought to be eating enough vegetables – based on the recommended intake of 5 serves per day. Key nutrients to look at if your child is experiencing heightened levels of stress or anxiety include zinc, magnesium, glutathione, vitamin b12 and iron. Dietary intake is always superior to supplementation so I would strongly recommend booking in for a nutritional consultation to receive a meal plan that is personalised to their current needs.
It should come as no surprise that exercise, in particular outdoor play can significantly boost the ‘happy’ hormones in the brain and positively influence feelings of anxiety. Not only can regular exercise boost immune function but it can also provide an escape from a particularly stressful or mentally draining situation. The rule of thumb is a minimum of 30 minutes per day of light activity. Bonus points if the activity is outside where they can experience the added benefit of being exposed to nature. This is shown to have a positive impact on mood, concentration, performance and soaking up those feel-good vitamin D rays.
Meditation and mindfulness
The power of meditation in both treating and managing anxiety is well documented. Activities such as focus tasks, breath work, yoga and gratitude practices can help them to calm their mind and separate themselves from the negative thought patterns and ‘what ifs’ that often fuel anxiety. One easy-to-implement practice is to teach your child to slowly draw an infinity symbol or continuous figure 8 on the back of their hand or above the knee. This works by enticing a physical sensation on the body, allowing for awareness in the here and now. It also offers a distraction, shifting mental focus away from the feelings or thoughts that were causing them concern at the time.
Listen and validate
One of the most important things you can do to help your teenager cope with their feelings of stress or anxiety is to listen to their concerns and validate their feelings. This can be incredibly tricky, as by nature we want to reassure our child that everything is ok. The downside to this is that they are at risk of feeling as though what they are experiencing isn’t normal or valid. Karen Young, a psychologist who specialises in child and teenage anxiety details the importance of acknowledging your teens’ feelings before offering a rationale as to why they may be experiencing the feelings that they are. She calls this the power in the why.
Speak with a qualified practitioner
Whether your child has been experiencing prolonged anxiety, or is currently going through a situation causing heightened stress, it is highly recommended that you arrange for them to speak with a qualified mental health professional. Therapy is very individualised and I recommend doing your research and speaking with your GP before choosing who is the best fit for your child and their current situation. A well executed mental health plan will include mental health treatment complemented by nutrition and natural medicine support practices.
If this information has resonated with you and your situation, and you would like some tailored advice for your child, then please get in touch to book an appointment.
Are you worried that your teenager might be experiencing high levels of anxiety? Have a read of this article that details some of the common causes and key signs to look out for.