Rising Anxiety in Children

Iva Lloyd, BScH, RHN, RPP, ND

Why are the minds of so many children unsettled? The incidence of anxiety and depression continues to rise, with recent stats indicating that anywhere from 5% to 20% of children and youth suffer from one or both of these conditions. This rise is a concern as it is associated with significant morbidity and impairment in social and academic functioning. Children with anxiety tend to have more somatic complaints, tend to be more isolated, have fewer close friends and have poorer self-esteem. Anxiety is also associated with an increased risk of mental and emotional problems later in life, and an increased risk of addictions, obesity and suicide.

Childhood anxiety, such as separation anxiety, is often the first type of mental health disorder that appears. Anxiety is a subjective, internal mental state of concern, apprehension and uneasiness. It arises when the internal mind chatter does not stop and there is a feeling of overwhelming uncertainty either due to an event that happened in the past or that might happen in the future. With anxiety, the mind is busy with “what-if” and “if-then” scenarios. In children, these scenarios are often created by the unconscious mind or from what a child has heard or seen, as opposed to adults, where there is more of an internal active thinking process. Anxiety is an internal sense of not being safe within one’s environment. For some children this occurs in specific situations, for others when they are tired or overly stressed, and for some it is a more global state.

It is common for all individuals to feel anxious periodically, especially when faced with new experiences. Children are constantly encountering new experiences: the first time they are left with friends or family, toilet training, their first day at school … Initially, everything is a new experience. The causes of childhood anxiety are multifactorial and greatly impacted by the current lifestyle and environment that the child lives in. Anxiety results in psychological and somatic symptoms, and it becomes a health concern when the effects are intense, when the incidences occur frequently, and when the anxiety leads to phobias that interfere with life. Following are a few areas that a practitioner might want to expand upon during an assessment to determine the causal factors.

Diet

Roughly 20% of children and adolescents have food hypersensitivities. This results not only in an increase in somatic complaints, but the concern about food intolerances and the caution and apprehension associated with eating increases anxiety, both in children and in their parents. Food intolerances also impact the absorption of other nutrients and can contribute to nutrient deficiencies.

Most children have an imbalanced diet, with excesses in nutritionally devoid foods and deficiencies in nutritious foods. The presence of artificial flavors, sugar, caffeine and simple carbohydrates has been associated with increased behavioral symptoms, including anxiety. The presence of trans-fats in food causes inflammation in the brain, resulting in nerve cells becoming more rigid, which contributes to decreased memory, dampened mood and increased anxiety. Also, many children become dehydrated when their drinking water is replaced with sugar-laden juices and soda. As water is essential to life and internal communication, a lack of water impacts every physiological function of the body, as well as an individual’s psychological state.

Omega-3 deficiency is associated with anxiety, as a lack of omega-3s affects serotonin and other neurotransmitters and influences fluidity of nerve cells. The following deficiencies have also been shown to be associated with anxiety: selenium, folic acid and B12, thiamine, niacin, vitamin C, vitamin E and magnesium. Foods high in nutrients, such as grain-based cereal, is associated with lowering levels of cortisol, which has been found to decrease anxiety. Assessing a child’s diet as well as their eating patterns is an important aspect of determining the underlying cause of the imbalance.

Childhood Development and Learning

Anxiety in children is associated with a feeling of not being safe, secure or protected. A child’s lifestyle that is unstructured, unscheduled and lacks boundaries adds to these feelings, as does one that is too structured or too restrictive. How a child develops and learns to interact with others and their external world impacts their mental state both as a child and as an adult.

Age two to five is a crucial time for brain development and for the start of a child’s imagination and creative thinking. At this age children realize they are separate from their mother, and the concept of “I” starts to develop. Initially children learn by mimicking, imitating and observing the world around them. How children spend their play time greatly impacts their learning and perceptions, both consciously and unconsciously. For example, daydreaming and imaginative play promote the child’s perceptual maturity, emotional growth and creative development, whereas play time that is spent with video games, or in front of a computer or television is very passive and limits development on all levels.

Learning requires time for reflection and for absorbing and processing experiences. It requires human interaction and interaction with the environment. The current emphasis of technology is replacing human interaction with simulated learning environments. There is a concern that this type of learning is adding to the tremendous increase in childhood anxiety, as well as impacting overall learning ability. Children are taught to memorize, not to think and reason, and there is too much information without a strong grounding in what is real.

Family and Peer Dynamics

During development, most children need to work through one or more anxieties or fears, such as anxiety about the dark, about being left alone, etc. If there is insecurity in the family or neglect, rejection, abandonment or abuse, it will likely create insecurity in the child. Research has shown that there is an increased chance that children will have anxiety if they grow up in a family where the parents are anxious, where one or both of the parents have an addiction, or if parents are overly critical or demanding. Anxiety to a large degree is a learned behavior and is strongly dependent on the ability of a child to talk to and interact with their parents (or other adults) when they are fearful or uncertain about new experiences.

A parent’s language and how they speak to their child affects their sense of identity and safety. If parents and adults repeatedly communicate a fearful and overly cautious attitude, such as “don’t touch,” “be careful,” “hang on to my hand so you won’t fall” or “don’t talk to strangers,” children will view the world as a dangerous place. This results in a decrease in risk taking, contraction on mental and physical levels and, hence, an increased risk of anxiety and other mental health concerns.

The labeling of children vs. activities is also a concern. Terms such as “bad girl” or “good boy” affect a child’s sense of self; they associate their identity with the words, not their actions. Asking parents to demonstrate how they reprimand or caution their children provides a practitioner insight as to what type of messaging a child is receiving. Is a parent labeling activities as appropriate or acceptable (or not), or are they labeling their children?

The relationship between children and their peers also affects the mental state of children. Peer-rated anxiety was positively correlated with children’s self-reported anxiety and was higher among children with anxiety disorder and children with social phobia. Children who reported having close friends or being liked by peers were less likely to suffer from anxiety or social phobias.

Movement and Play

Children today are more sedentary. Movement and play are important aspects of development on all levels. Play provides the opportunity for children to learn, develop and perfect skills that build competence. It decreases anxiety by teaching children how to cope with new experiences; mediates between the unconscious and the conscious; stimulates imagination; and provides gratifying experiences to young (and old) minds. During active play children interact with their external world and they learn to tell the difference between reality and fantasy; this difference is not as well defined when play is passive or simulated.

Lack of movement is associated with increased restlessness and anxiety. Research has demonstrated that physical activity decreased depression and anxiety, and was associated with increased perceived physical conditioning, body satisfaction and overall physical self-worth. Regular moderate exercise has also been shown to enhance the body’s innate ability to defend against oxidative stress.

Not only is the lack of movement in children a concern; so is posture. For example, increased time in front of a computer results in forward head posture and increased lumbar lordosis. The stance of many children is imbalanced, and the art of walking and standing straight is seldom a focus of parents or teachers. The result is postural misalignment that then blocks the flow of energy and nutrients, contributing to somatic and psychological symptoms.

Television

The increase in television viewing adds to the sedentary lifestyle of children: It is associated with obesity and vision impairment, decreases imagination and language skills, and the messaging that is conveyed adds to the feeling that the world is unsafe. According to research, when children decreased their television viewing time, it was associated with increased physical and global self-worth. The research postulated that this result occurred because it may have enhanced feelings of self-discipline or self-control that psychologically empowered children to feel better about themselves.

The messages conveyed in television lack context and meaning, and depict the world as a mean and violent place, filled with uncertainty, danger and apprehension. Children and youth are particularly vulnerable to these messages, which have been shown to adversely influence their self-image and to increase anxiety and aggressive behaviors. Many children are not able to assimilate and process the barrage of information that is conveyed, and since television viewing is a passive process it changes the way that children learn. Their perception of cause and effect is distorted, as is their idea of reality.

Doing is better than watching. Television is a one-way communication vehicle. Knowledge is increased by talking, manipulating materials, participating in gross motor activities or interacting with other people. There is a need for feedback and interaction to dispel anxiety. During the assessment process, I encourage practitioners to ask about the time spent in front of television and the role of television; is it an educator or babysitter?

Being “Connected”

Computer, Internet, cell phone and smart phone usage is resulting in addiction-like behavior in children and adolescents, and is greatly contributing to the incidence of anxiety and other mental health problems. Prior to kindergarten, children are being exposed to the “wonders” of the computer and Internet, and even to cell phones. The need for children to be “connected” and “turned on” is a major contributor to the anxiety felt by children and their parents. There are even cell phones targeted to tots. Research shows that adolescents view cell phones as the most important device they own; even clothing and knapsacks are being designed to hold a cell phone. Children and adolescents are becoming dependent on a cell phone at younger and younger ages. Text messaging between kids has replaced face-to-face communication. Cell phones are even becoming part of mental-health patterns. For example, children with obsessive-compulsive disorder use the phone to constantly check things, and those with social phobia use the phone to avoid direct interaction with people.

Computers have replaced human interaction and face-to-face learning. There is a concern that digital learning (computers) results in primarily memorization and repetition skills, whereas analog learning (face-to-face conversation and active interaction) is needed to develop problem-solving skills, reasoning skills and complex thinking strategies. Faster is not necessarily better. Learning from computers is mostly passive without the internal mental, emotional and physical involvement necessary for cognitive development. Limited cognitive development is a breeding ground for anxiety.

Internet and e-mail usage with children has skyrocketed. This has changed the way that children learn to communicate. In face-to-face communication, the body learns to evaluate feedback with all of its senses, to pick up on visual cues and on body language. With e-mails this process is hampered, which results in an increased sense of restlessness. There is a decrease in control when the person someone is communicating with is not in front of them, which results in messages being sent that a person would probably never verbalize face to face. With e-mail, there is also increased uncertainty inherent with the delay in response, and the potential for messages to be forwarded and stored adds to the sense of not being safe. Children are learning to build relationships, to argue and to gossip without ever looking another person in the eyes. Much of subtle messages conveyed in face-to-face communication is being lost.

The concern of EMF radiation, the impact of cell phone-type exposure on developing brains, the yin-yang imbalances due to holding a phone to one ear, as well the concern of bluetooth head-set technology all add to the growing concern of children constantly being connected. I encourage practitioners to ask about a child’s online usage.

Treatment

The naturopathic approach is to identify and treat the cause of disease. When childhood anxiety is a concern, it is important that before supplements, homeopathics or other treatments are used there is an understanding of the causal factors. I have found that treating anxiety (in children and adults) often involves lifestyle changes, dietary changes and working with a patient’s internal language and mind chatter. With children, it often involves addressing the language of the parents as well.

From a research perspective, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common conventional treatment for anxiety, and it has only been shown to be effective about 50% of the time. This is a strong indication that treatment of childhood anxiety must include a different and often broader, multifaceted approach. The naturopathic focus on treating the root cause and treating the whole person has a lot to offer children and parents who are dealing with this health concern.


Lloyd-9780-colorIva Lloyd, BScH, RHN, RPP, ND graduated from CCNM in 2002. She is a Reiki master and registered polarity practitioner, has studied educational kinesiology (Brain Gym), NeuroLinguistic Programming and Runic Energy Archetypes. Dr. Lloyd teaches seminars on the energetics of health and disease, and is the author of Messages From the Body – A Guide to the Energetics of Health. Prior to becoming an ND, she consulted and held senior management positions in both the technology and healthcare fields. She is the founder of Naturopathic Foundations Health Clinic in Markham, Ont. and chair of the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors.

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