Military life can bring all sorts of challenges, and our children are definitely not excluded from experiencing the anxiety. But often times anxiety presents itself so differently in children than it does in adults and so often we miss it or misdiagnose it.
When I was completing my education as a marriage and family counselor I did my practicum and internship experience working in a family counseling program that served a school district. We worked with individual students in the schools through classroom visits, group work, and family sessions. Often I would work with children who were presenting behavioral issues- misbehaving in class, uncontrollable behavior, not completing work, disruptive and distracting to other children. Teachers wanted them tested for ADHD. When I watched these children in class I would find the same behavioral issues in the classroom. I would talk to their parents and find that often there was behavioral issue at home as well. But then I would talk to the children, get a history of their lives from their parents and you would find out that there were many events in the child’s life that are anxiety provoking.
- parents divorcing
- new sibling
- deployed parenting (I worked in a district around a military base)
- new student
- living with family other than parents
- abuse in their past
Of course things like this would cause anxiety in anyone, especially in a little child that doesn’t understand them fully. And because they don’t fully understand the emotions of what they are going through anxiety often exhibits itself in children through behavioral issues and physical symptoms.
Physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- stomach issues- nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- lack of sleep or excessive sleep
- head aches
Behavioral symptoms of anxiety include:
- disruptive in the classroom and at home
- becomes disobedient and defiant
So now that we have identified the signs of anxiety in children, what do you do now?
If your children are exhibiting some of these symptoms in regards to a new life change (like the ones listed above- or even more) then before you jump to conclusions about a behavioral diagnosis like ADHD or ODD it might be worth looking into anxiety as a possible explanation. Especially if these symptoms seem to appear after a life change rather than having been present prior to a large life change. ADHD is over diagnosed in children because anxiety mimics these symptoms and putting your child on ADHD medication will not solve anxiety issues.
Finding a therapist or counselor who is trained to work with children can help you by assessing for anxiety. A school counselor can be a great start for this as they are trained in assessment and diagnostics just like any other counselor. They are also often plugged into resources in the community and can help find a good fit for your family.
The military also has resources to help children who are experiencing anxiety due to life moves. There are MFLCs in DOD schools and are a wonderful resource.
Counseling with Children:
While talk therapy with children may be difficult there are several creative therapeutic approaches that work well for children.
This is a wonderful option for young children. Finding a counselor trained in play therapy can be a wonderful avenue. This is a non-traditional therapeutic method that works for young children because the therapist works with the child to help reveal potential causes of anxiety or other stressers through the child’s play. For young kids play can reveal subconscious thoughts and emotions that otherwise would not be able to verablize
Art Therapy & Music Therapy
Art and music therapy can also be great for young children as counselors use these techniques to help unveil different patterns. I worked with a kindergartner and often used art therapy techniques. At the beginning his drawings were often very violent in nature. He had a a childhood of being in and out of foster care, back with his mom and finally adopted by his older sister. Over the course of several months of working with him and his sister and a few other caretakers we were able to help resolve some of the behavioral issues that were being presented at home and in the classroom by using his drawings of violent tendencies to work through what he has gone through. At the end his drawings were more family oriented. Now art therapy alone did not do this but it gave us a direction to take us in while we worked in family therapy.
And finally family therapy. I think this is necessary no matter what method the child is working in. Children are a product of their environments- like the stressers military life bring. If parents are anxious then it can leech over into the kids and so we have work as a family it also provides methods to help the parents work with their children at home.
So if you think your child may be dealing with anxiety, here are the tried and true symptoms and potential causes of anxiety and different avenues to pursue.
If you are interested in coping strategies for children here are some great ideas!