Written by Adam Lundell, OCVT Vision Therapist
Does your child have anxiety? Are you unsure if your child may have anxiety? First of all, let’s throw out any negative associations with that word, because over 6.8 million Americans live with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Many children deal with anxiety, and when I say “anxiety” I don’t mean just a clinical diagnosis, but a general nervousness about certain routine aspects of their life. Anyone who’s gone through a therapy knows how taxing it can be as you are re-training your brain to do something different than what it considers “normal.” So it’s completely normal that children (and adults) could experience some type of nervousness, I would too! Be it fear, perfectionism, overstimulation or frustration, anxiety can manifest itself in many forms and bubble up at different times—in the car on the way to a session, during a session, or even at home while doing home activities. With that being said, all of these sensations are completely normal, and there are so many easy, little things that you as a parent or the individual can do to calm the nerves and make those car rides a little smoother.
First of all, it is important to recognize the symptoms of anxiety:
- restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
- being easily fatigued
- difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
- muscle tension
- sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless, unsatisfying sleep)These can all manifest themselves in many different aspects of a child’s program:
- In addition, as it is related to children: “Children with GAD tend to be very hard on themselves and strive for perfection. They may also seek constant approval or reassurance from others.” –Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- Frustration and irritability during home activities
- Unwillingness and dread of attending vision therapy sessions
- Difficulty concentrating during home activities
- Sudden changes in temperament prior to a session or home activities
- Inability to perform any activities (in session or at home) to known potential
- Extreme fatigue after a vision therapy session
- Tantrums during any of the above situations
The first step in addressing any type of general anxiety or nervousness that you or your child is experiencing is to recognize the pattern. Monitor your own behavior or your child’s behavior by paying attention to changes in temperament, noting what activities occurred directly before and directly after the change in temperament. Did the temperament change right before a session? Does some type of breakdown occur on days when there is a session? Are you or your child suddenly less outwardly social prior to doing home activities or prior to a session? There are so many different situations, and sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint, but sometimes the best thing to do is simply ask!
Now that you’ve recognized the anxiety inducer (i.e. the thing that causes the anxiety or nervousness), here are some helpful tips on how to reduce the symptoms. Before I go into them, it is important to remember that anxiety works subconsciously. Anxiety can arise very slowly due to indirect interactions and thought processes throughout the day, or sometimes incredibly fast due to sudden thoughts or stimuli. Although some of the tips below can provide some instant relief, there is no general “perfect remedy” that can make everything 100% better. Most importantly, simply be patient. As hard as it may be sometimes when trying to deal with a child in the middle of a tantrum or in moments of chronic frustration, it’s important to be patient and listen to all that is happening. Remember: anxiety is neurological and involuntary.
Recognizing that the anxiety is occurring: Probably the most important thing you can do is to have you or your child recognize that the anxiety is occurring at the moment it is happening. Of course for a young child the term “anxiety” will be meaningless, but simply asking your child why they are upset or if they’re nervous about something can have positive effects because they are able to get some stress of their chest. Talking about what makes them nervous can in itself be very powerful.
Deep breathing – As cheesy as this may sound, this is very effective when combined with other techniques. Deep breathing slows down the heart rate, counteracting the bodies reaction to anxiety which speeds up the heart rate.
Redirecting – Redirecting a child’s attention to something they have interest in can have great effects. This could be simply starting a new conversation about something good happening in their life, asking them about their favorite show, asking them to tell you about something that they know all about, mentioning something exciting coming up, etc.
Reassuring – Performance anxiety can often be a large factor of the overall anxiety. As all of us at OCVT have worked with patients who are perfectionists, we understand that sometimes the frustration is simply because the performance “wasn’t perfect.” It’s important to reassure your child that they’re not supposed to do anything perfectly, because no one does! Moreover, we don’t want everything to be perfect—that’s not why we’re all here. It’s ok to make mistakes, that’s how we learn.
Physical Activity – As anxiety occurs anatomically, any type of physical activity (jumping jacks, toe touches, (stretching!), etc.) can be very effective and immediately reducing symptoms of anxiety.
Positive Framing – There is truth to the power of positivity. There can be so much negative thinking in stressful situations when a child is nervous or reacting a certain way due to anxiety. Speaking about everything with positive language and in a positive tone can calm a child’s nerves. Emphasizing the good things that will happen and all of a child’s strengths rather than weaknesses can be helpful. (e.g. “I know it’s hard, but your eyes are getting so much stronger”)
Eliminating Pressure – Emphasizing that the situation “isn’t a big deal” can be very helpful in anxious situations. Rather than speaking about home activities or a session in terms of something the child “has to do” or that is “very important,” it’s often helpful to act nonchalantly about something. Because if no one is making a big deal out of it, then maybe the child won’t either.
There are many causes of anxiety. Every person’s brain is wired differently and this can make simple situations incredibly stressful, for you and your child. It’s always important to remember that all of this is occurring naturally and is no one’s fault. It’s also important to remember that all of us here at OCVT understand these things and we strive to constantly recognize and attend to these matters with grace and understanding. We’re all different, and that’s what makes us all so special.