As previously mentioned, it is common for children to experience changes in behavior and emotional upheaval when the world around them changes suddenly, as in a divorce or change of schools. In a child with anxiety, these challenges can be especially difficult because both her inner and outer world feel out of control at the same time. Both children and adults can experience adjustment disorders, and in fact, they are among the most commonly diagnosed mental health issues. In an adjustment disorder, there is a specifically identifiable stressor, which must have occurred no more than three months before the onset of emotional or behavioral symptoms. Adjustment disorders are generally short-lived, resolving in about six months after the original stress occurred. An adjustment disorder can involve depression, anxiety, or both. Behavioral disturbances can be common, especially in children, who are more likely to “show” their feelings through their behaviors. Common events that might cause a child to experience an adjustment disorder are outlined next. If you are concerned that your child is having more trouble adjusting to change than she should, use the tips provided to help her cope, so that her anxiety does not become problematic.
Moving to a new home is stressful for all families, and can be especially troubling if a child has to leave good friends or change schools. These transitions can be especially difficult in the middle-school years, when kids are working so hard to define who they will be and choosing a solid base of peers. For children with underlying anxiety, a move can be highly traumatic. If your child has anxiety, do your best to give him all the information you can and familiarize him with the new neighborhood. If the move is not long distance, maybe you can take a walk through the new neighborhood, especially when a school bus is picking up or dropping off other children, or drive around and visit a nearby park and restaurants. After the move, be sure to take the time to go back and visit old friends. Above all, let your child know that moving is not easy and listen to his fears. Validate the losses he will experience, and find ways he can be included in the team to make it a success.
Illness or Death in the Family
Both sudden and chronic illnesses are highly stressful for families, and of course, the loss of a loved one is among the most stressful events a person can experience. When family life becomes upset or unbalanced, this can be very destabilizing for a child with anxiety. Children who spend excessive amounts of time away from their parents, because of lengthy hospitalizations for either themselves or a family member, can develop symptoms of anxiety and have more difficulty with developmental transitions.
Illness and death are mysterious and scary, especially for younger children. Experts say that it is best to give your child whatever information is available, but in a form that fits his level of development. There are many great books and other resources that can help younger children grasp serious life events at a level they can understand. Medical providers, places of worship, friends, and family are also great resources and support, and can buffer both you and your child from the anxiety inherent in managing illness and death.
Birth of a Sibling
Though the birth of a sibling is a new beginning for all families, it can be an especially difficult time for older children, particularly if they are already anxious. They now have to share mom and dad's attention, and they can sometimes feel alone and isolated when the rest of the world pays too much attention to the new baby. Children with anxiety may show increased trouble with separation, or regress (lose skills) in managing their emotions and behavior. Helpful tips include making sure you continue to spend one-on-one time with your child, and include him as much as you can in the new daily routines you are establishing. Avoid making older children responsible for the care of their younger siblings on a regular basis, as this can cause resentment and tension between the siblings.
Research has also shown that because higher expectations are placed on the oldest child in a family, first-borns experience more guilt, anxiety, and difficulty in coping with stressful situations.
Divorce, separation, and remarriage are childhood events that naturally create a wealth of feelings, including anxiety. Sometimes even positive changes, such as a parent marrying a person the child really likes, can cause stress. General fears of the unknown, or uncertainty of where a child “fits” in the new family are often undercurrents in children with anxiety. There are multiple resources on the Internet, at bookstores, through places of worship, or through community education to assist blended families.