Childhood anxiety and how to spot it

Treating childhood anxiety

(Watch the newscast portion of this story in the attached video)

Growing up is hard.

You only get one chance at childhood, and most of us would like to do it right.

Sometimes that's hard to do when things are out of your control.

Isaac Bealor is a typical 9-year-old boy.

"I play baseball and football," said Isaac.

He's learning to play the piano.

"I enjoy going in the woods...playing outside," said Isaac.

And of course he like to play video games.

On the outside, what you see is what you get. But on the inside, it's what makes Isaac tick that, well, makes him Isaac.

"When Isaac was a baby, and we he was young, he was always intense, and very focused on things, but he was really happy," said Isaac's mom, Tara.

As he grew up, he maintained that happiness, until he got to be about five or six. Then something changed.

"I felt like we lost that...I don't know. If you asked me to describe Isaac, I would say he's really happy. He wasn't that way anymore," said Tara.
"You could just start to see the stress on his body, and developing into different nervous reactions...almost like a nervous tick that he would get," said Isaac's dad, Luke.
"And he was so angry, and so irritable, and every thing made him so over the top upset," said Tara.

Isaac's mom said she noticed Isaac would start to worry about things a typical 7-year-old shouldn't worry about.

She knew it was time to speak up and say something to Isaac's doctor. The pediatrician recommended seeing a Behavioral Therapist and was later diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

What makes you anxious? "Well, when we're going to be late. Sometimes when we're running late for school, I get really anxious. When we're going to be late to a friend's house, pretty much when we're rushing around," said Isaac.

Nikki Sheilds is Isaac's therapist at Quincy Medical Group. She says we all have anxiety. We need anxiety because it motivates us, and keeps us safe. But, she says there are 5 to 20% of kids who have too much anxiety. She says learning how to use it to your benefit is key. Step one, recognizing it.

"Anxiety is usually described as feeling unsure or uneasy. It can be felt as physical symptoms like nausea or a tummy ache. A lot of little kids will say that because it's easier to say I have a tummy ache, rather than I don't feel safe or secure right now," said Shields.

Other symptoms can be shakiness, rapid breathing, shortness of breath. In younger kids, it can come out as tantrums, meltdowns or outbursts.

"What might look like I'm antsy or inattentive, can't focus, can't pay attention. It might look like that child has some attention deficit symptoms. But if we look under the surface, some of the same things can be symptoms of anxiety," said Sharon Bearden.

Bearden is a a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Adams County and is many times on the front lines of recognizing a child's behavior as anxiety.

"Anxiety creates fight or flight, and that's built into us. When we are under stress, we have chemical triggers that tell us to either escape, or fight. And that's part of who we are," said Bearden.

Next is getting the diagnosis. Then, learning how to treat it.

I think it's okay to admit that you don't have all of the answers. As a parent, you need to learn, and help your kids learn different ways to deal with things that we didn't have to deal with as kids or young adults," said Luke.

Both Luke and Tara say learning how to live with anxiety is different, but it's very doable. They've figured out Isaac's triggers, and instead of being reactive to his anger out-bursts, they now do something different. They talk.

"I don't want my kids not to have adversity, because adversity helps kids be better people. But I don't want adversity to knock them down to the point where they can't get back up," said Luke.

Sometimes, it just takes a hard reset on the day. If it's bad, one of the parents will say, 'Ok. Let's stop, say something nice about each other, and move on.'

The other thing that helps is talking to others about it. It's anxiety, it's common, and the Bealors think more people need to be aware of it.

"I don't think people should feel ashamed, or feel like they are less equipped to handle life just because they are getting help dealing with life's stress," says Luke.

The Bealors say seeing a therapist has made all the difference in the world.

"I see that old Isaac. Where he's overall just more happy, and that's a huge relief for me," said Tara.
"He still has his highs and lows, just like anyone else. But his overall intensity has come down," said Luke.

Luke and Isaac are described as "two peas in a pod." Luke says looking back at his own childhood, he thinks he probably has Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and has had it for years. He now sees a therapist on his own, and says life in the Bealor household is so much better.

As for what causes anxiety, Therapist Nikki Shields says it could be genetic, or it could be learned, especially if something tragic happened in childhood.

She also says 2nd grade is prime time for childhood anxiety to start developing.

Experts say onset can certainly be sooner, but kids of that age are usually more socially aware.

The problem is, anxiety doesn't have a select set of symptoms. It can easily hide itself as something else. For Isaac, his anxiety came out as anger and frustration.

"When I get anxious, I feel very uptight. I get worried and angry a lot," said Isaac.
"100% of kids have anxiety," said Nikki Sheilds, a Behavioral Health Therapist with Quincy Medical Group.

Here is the best way Nikki Shields can explain it.

Think of your brain being three colors. The green zone is where you want to be...that's your logical thinking area. The blue is your emotional state...this is where you feels happiness, sadness. And red is where you want to stay out of. That's where you can't make rational decisions. As a parent, you need to stay out of your red zone, and help get your child back to the green zone.

"If you're yelling at a child who's already upset, you're only going to get more fear or oppositional behavior. Staying calm yourself is really step number one," said Shields.

After that, it's prevention. Find out what makes your child anxious. Large crowds...bedtime? Then find ways to avoid those situations, or Nikki Shields says teach your kids about their feelings and the different states of mind when things are going well. That way it's easier for them to keep in mind later on when emotions kick into overdrive.

If you think your child may have extra anxiety, start a conversation with their pediatrician.

If they need to be referred to a behavior therapist, the pediatrician can help with that.

We have included extra resources about childhood anxiety by clicking here.

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