When considering a child’s mental health and behaviours, we often dismiss anxiety in confident children – children who play sports, children who can talk in class, happy children, children who have a laugh and a joke. Creative children and children who come across as cocky can all be deemed to be managing ok. If we consider a child to be coping and constantly tell them who we think they are, they see the pleasure it gives us and they want to maintain that persona, that effort and that pressure to be that person.
The problem with that view that confident kids don’t get anxiety is that it can be so very wrong and very damaging for children hiding anxiety and depression. They often feel under more pressure to hide their feelings as there are expectations on them to do well, to be happy, to be who everyone else thinks they are, when they are struggling under the surface.
Anxiety* is felt as an intense worry or fear and can be over anything old or new, things you have always been ok with can become scary or the cause of worry and new tasks, challenges or experiences can cause you to feel anxious.
Depression* is a long term feeling of low mood, feeling of sadness, hopelessness and helplessness, sometimes you can feel numb and negativity can become the focus, influencing your self talk.
Both anxiety and depression can change personalities. But these changes are not always visible as children learn to hide it very well. Children’s behaviours are the indicator as to what is going on with them.
From a very early age, we learn to hide our feelings and thoughts and only express socially acceptable thoughts and feelings. They are usually within the range of happy, sad, angry, frustrated, excited, enjoyment or we resort to ‘I’m ok’, ‘I’m fine’, ‘I agree with you’, ‘I don’t know’ when pressed to offer some kind of contribution.
Anxiety and depression don’t appear as we expect them to look in adults or children. The struggle to keep anxiety or depression hidden is real – a plastered on smile, the bravado front, the laughing and joking and the great work they may produce. All this means nothing to them when they are crumbling inside, under the external pressure and the self punishment and self judgement that they have long learned to apply to themselves.
Things to look out for in confident children
You may see an escalation in sickness, illness or physical pain, increase in excuses for not doing something, expression of worry over failing or seeking reassurance that if they fail it will still be ok. There may be an increase in finding fault in their work or their performance, irritability over things they have always enjoyed. They may withdraw from friends and or family. You may see an escalation in anger or aggression, maybe they become a little more needy for attention, etc.
How you can help
- Pick the right moment to ask questions, talk and communicate with them. During an outburst or emotional moment is not the time.
- They may be feeling confused and not understand what is going on for themselves. Asking ‘why’ questions is not productive, but asking what they feel is going on or how you can help them is a little more helpful.
- Help them understand their worries and their fears. They will be better placed to manage it when they understand it.
- Help them build self esteem. Help them accept themselves and like who they are – this is very different to confidence, which is the physical abilities to do things like play sport, go out with friends, etc.
*these are NOT diagnostic descriptions, they are descriptions from lived experience.