Childhood anxiety is on the rise globally, and alarmingly for parents in the UAE, 2-year-olds are even showing the signs.
With the new school year beginning on Sunday, some children and parents will almost certainly be experiencing anxious tendencies that can include nervousness, irritability and trouble concentrating and sleeping.
“Anecdotal evidence shows that some children as young as 2 or 3 are presenting with distress for myriad reasons,” says Madeeha Afridi, a Dubai-based child psychologist at LightHouse Arabia. “If a child’s anxiety is not observed and doesn’t get the attention it needs, it can manifest into health, physical and emotional problems as they get older.”
Similarly, Afridi adds, if a child suffering from angst doesn’t get help managing it, academic and behavioural issues can be the result — and this can lead to longer-term damage.
In 2014, the World Health Organization published a report entitled Health for the World’s Adolescents, which revealed that depression — and, as an extension, anxiety — is the predominant cause of illness and disability globally for young people between the ages of 10 and 19.
A 2013 study by Dubai Health Authority showed that one in five teenage students in Dubai showed symptoms of depression.
“The key point for parents to remember in managing anxiety is that the more conversations they have as a family about the new school year, the more they are preventing anxiety for their children and themselves,” Afridi says.
“Open dialogues help the child feel prepared and can be a healthy way to avoid stress and anxiety about the upcoming year.”
Aside from feelings of the unknown usually associated with making new friends or settling in at a new school or class, experts suggest that increases in childhood anxiety can also be attributed to rises in technology use, working parents and a spike in divorce rates, while living abroad and adjusting to a new environment can also play a part.
“Many families move here for a certain period of time and may present with symptoms of depression and anxiety because of their transient lifestyle,” Afridi adds.
Aside from talking to their children every step of the way, Afridi suggests a few things parents can do to make the transition from holiday mode to school mode less stressful:
• Visiting the school
It can be helpful if parents assure their child in the lead-up to the first day of term that they will have a strong support network at school in the form of their teacher, counsellor, coaches and peers. Parents should also consider taking part in back-to-school events that the school may organise for families.
• Giving children the power
In some sense, children feel powerless when most areas of their lives are pre-planned and they have no say over their time and schedule. Where possible, whether it be choosing school supplies, extra-curricular activities or options for lunch, give them a sense of ownership and power, which can encourage them and make them feel empowered.
• Building a home/school partnership
As the school year begins and things start to move at a quicker pace, it’s be helpful for parents to build and sustain a healthy, positive home/school partnership to stay involved and in-the-know of what’s happening in their child’s life. Parents can do this by attending school conferences, keeping a good relationship with their child’s teacher, coaches and counsellor, and being involved and taking part in school events whenever possible.
• Implementing family rituals
Families spend more time with each other during the summer, with more flexibility in scheduling, and it can be helpful for parents to try to create times and activities through the school year where they are still staying connected and bonding as a family. Some ways of doing this can be dinners together as a family, no technology/devices after a certain time at home, family movie or game nights or bedtime rituals.
Abu Dhabi mother of three Gemma (surname withheld by request), who works as a teacher, knows all too well the challenges associated with parenting an anxious child.
Gemma’s 9-year-old stepson shares his time between her home and his mother’s house, and this has led to separation anxiety.
“Anxiety is common in school-age children. With my son, it’s mostly separation anxiety and it’s mostly at bedtime, especially when we have a change of routine such as a new school year or term,” the 34-year-old says. “Fear of not knowing which class he will be in, who will be in his class and having a new teacher.”
Gemma says in her experience as a teacher, this is common for children whose parents are no longer living together.
“As a teacher, I often see the difference in children once their parents get divorced,” she says.
As a result of seeking support, Gemma’s family has worked out ways of dealing with the young boy’s anxiety.
“We made a box and every night for a couple of weeks he wrote all his fears for that day on paper and put it in the box,” she says. “The fears were real, but the box would look after his fears while he slept. This helped him stay calm before bedtime.”
Gemma also read aloud visualisations that she found online. “These took him on a journey like he was [part of] a real story and led him to pleasant, relaxing and calm places,” she adds.
Abu Dhabi-based Sasha Quince of Let’s Go Yoga is a big advocate of children’s yoga classes as a way of managing stress.
“We teach them poses, breathing, meditations, relaxations, coordination and endurance building practices,” Quince says. “We also use certain games to boost self-confidence and trust.”
For the past few school terms, Quince’s sessions have included hyperactive boys.
“It has been rewarding to see them simmer, calm and embrace the practices, helping to manage anger and irritability,” she says.
“Many parents notice that their children simmer down [after doing yoga] or for shy children the opposite is observed, where they blossom and express themselves more.”
If you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour or need help dealing with anxiety, parents groups and associations can be helpful, the school counsellor may be worth a visit or you can see a child psychologist, such as Afridi.
“Speaking to a psychologist can be helpful, because not only is the support based on professional help with their concerns, but it is objective in nature,” Afridi says.