Anxiety is the feeling of worry, apprehension or dread that comes from thinking that something bad is going to happen or that you can’t cope with a situation. And it’s the physical reactions like ‘butterflies in the stomach’, tension, shakiness, nausea and sweatiness, and behaviour like avoiding what’s causing the anxiety or wanting a lot of reassurance.
Anxiety is a natural reaction to new or challenging situations. Anxiety can happen in response to a specific situation or event, but it continues after the situation has passed. Anxiety can happen without a specific situation or event too.
Anxiety, disability and chronic conditions: what to expect
Children with disability or chronic health conditions are more likely than other children to experience anxiety.
This might be for several reasons:
- Their disability or condition is unpredictable or significantly affects their daily lives.
- They’re more likely to experience bullying.
- They feel different from their peers.
- They have learning difficulties, intellectual disability or difficulties with social understanding that make it harder for them to understand what’s happening around them.
Children with disability or chronic health conditions might worry about:
- having medical procedures like blood tests
- missing out on events, friendships or school
- coping with their condition or treatments
- being burdens on their families
- being different from their peers
- getting sicker, having a relapse or dying.
These worries can sometimes get in the way of children sticking to treatments or activities that they need to do to stay healthy.
Helping children with disability or chronic conditions manage anxiety
There are many practical things you can do to help your child with disability or a chronic health condition manage anxiety.
Many of these are the same things you’d do for all children with anxiety. They include acknowledging your child’s fear, gently encouraging your child to do things they feel anxious about, and praising them when they try to face their fears.
There are some extra things you can do to help your child with disability or a chronic condition.
- Give your child developmentally appropriate information about their condition or disability. Give your child more information as they get older. Without accurate information, children often imagine the worst.
- Give your child choices. There are some things your child will have to do, but you can be flexible with other things, like foods within a diet or physiotherapy times. If your child has choices about things like this, it gives them a sense of control.
- Plan for procedures. Does your child do better with several days to prepare, or does your child worry if they have too much notice? Help your child plan and think about what strategies they can use to help them cope with procedures.
- Try to make treatments fun. You could play music or find ways to turn treatments into games.
- Create a storybook about your child’s condition and their experiences in hospital. You can use this to answer some of your child’s questions about their health.
Relationships and feelings
- Look into peer support networks for children with disability or chronic conditions. If these networks run camps or playgroups, this can give your child the chance to socialise with other children with similar experiences.
- Develop a plan that helps your child keep up with schoolwork and friends when they’re away for treatments.
- Support your child’s friendships. For example, you could encourage your child to invite friends to your home.
- Help your child work out what soothes them when they’re feeling anxious. For example, your child might like to be hugged, sit quietly for a few minutes or cuddle a favourite toy.
- Read stories with your child about other brave children like them.
- Help your child learn how to manage their emotions.
- Let your child know it’s OK to feel frustrated or angry – for example, because they experience things their peers don’t have to put up with. You can encourage your child to be kind to themselves when they feel this way.
- Be consistent in the way you use family rules and consequences with all your children.
- Have fun as a family. Spend time together that’s not focused on your child’s disability or condition. You could try scheduling family time as well as one-on-one time with your child.
- Be a role model for managing your own anxiety about new things. You can help your child see that anxiety in itself isn’t bad. It’s only a problem when it stops us from doing what we want to do that it becomes a problem.
- Work on problem-solving with your child – for example, if your child is anxious about reading aloud at school, you could work out what’s worrying them about it, then come up with some possible solutions, like sliding a piece of paper down the page to make sure they don’t lose their place, or practising reading to the dog.
When to be concerned about anxiety in children with disability
For most children, anxiety comes and goes quite quickly. But for some children it doesn’t go away or is so intense that it stops them from doing everyday things, like separating from their parents, enjoying social events or getting blood tests.
You might consider seeing your GP or another health professional working with your child if your child:
- constantly feels nervous, anxious or on edge, or can’t stop or control worrying
- has anxious feelings that go on for weeks, months or even longer
- has anxious feelings that interfere with their schoolwork, socialising, medical procedures and everyday activities.
When anxiety is severe and long-lasting, it might be an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders usually respond very well to professional treatment. And the earlier they’re treated, the less likely they are to affect children’s mental health and development in the long term.
You can get professional help for your child’s anxiety from:
- a school counsellor
- a psychologist or counsellor
- your GP or paediatrician
- your local community health centre
- Australian Psychological Society – Find a psychologist.
If you don’t know where to go, your GP can guide you to the most appropriate services for your family.
If your child is 5 years or older, they can also call Kids Helpline – call 1800 551 800 or go to Kids Helpline email counselling service to speak with a trained counsellor.
Looking after yourself
It’s important to look after yourself. If you’re meeting your own needs, you’ll be better able to meet your child’s needs too.
It might help to:
- contact a support program for parents of children with disability or chronic conditions
- talk to your GP
- look into respite care so you can have a break.