Anxiety, disability and chronic conditions: what to expect
Many children experience anxiety every now and then. As children grow, develop and explore their worlds, they come across challenging situations. Anxiety is a normal reaction to these situations.
For most children, anxiety doesn’t last and goes away on its own. But for some children, anxiety is so intense that it stops them from doing everyday things.
Children with disability or chronic health conditions are more likely than other children to experience anxiety. This is because they 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
- getting sicker, having a relapse or dying.
Signs and symptoms of anxiety in children with disability or chronic conditions
Children with disability or chronic conditions generally show the same signs and symptoms of childhood anxiety as other children.
But when children have disability or chronic conditions, it might sometimes be hard to distinguish the physical signs of anxiety, like a racing heart or stomach aches, from the physical symptoms of their conditions.
So if your child has a disability or chronic condition, you can also look out for other signs of anxiety. These might include:
- worrying about procedures or going to hospital
- refusing to go to school or not wanting to leave you
- refusing treatments
- saying ‘no’ a lot, or behaving aggressively
- avoiding talking about the condition.
Helping children with disability or chronic conditions deal with anxiety
There are many practical things you can do to support your child with disability or a chronic health condition through anxiety.
Many of these are the same things you’d do for any child with anxiety. They include acknowledging your child’s fear, gently encouraging your child to do things she feels anxious about, and praising her when she tries to face her 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 his condition or disability. Give him more information as he gets 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 her a sense of control.
- Plan for procedures. Does your child do better with several days to prepare, or does he worry if he has too much notice? Help your child plan and think about what strategies he can use to help him cope with procedures.
- Try to make treatments fun. You could play music or find ways to turn them into games.
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 she’s away for treatments.
- Support your child’s friendships – for example, you could encourage him to invite friends to your home.
- Help your child learn coping skills. You can do this by helping your child work out what soothes her when she’s feeling anxious – for example, she might like to be hugged, sit quietly for a few minutes or cuddle a favourite toy.
- Be consistent in the way you use family rules and consequences with all your children.
- Have fun together 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.
Getting help for anxiety
You can get professional help and advice from several sources:
- your child’s school counsellor
- your child’s GP or paediatrician (who might refer you to a child psychologist)
- other professionals in your child’s team
- your local children’s health or community health centre
- Australian Psychological Society – Find a psychologist
- Kids Helpline – call 1800 551 800, or go to Kids Helpline email counselling service.
Looking after yourself
Caring for a child with a disability or chronic condition can be stressful. It can affect the whole family. If you look after yourself, you’ll be better able to look after your child.
You might find it helps to:
- contact a support program for parents of children with disability or chronic conditions
- talk to your GP
- make use of respite care to have a break.