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Author Katrina Roe aims to help children with feelings of anxiety through her book Gemma Gets the Jitters, providing a story-telling resource for parents dealing with their child’s phobias or anxiety.
Research1 suggests that one in fourteen or 6.9% of young Australians experienced an anxiety disorder in 2015. An anxiety disorder is a medical condition characterised by persistent, excessive worry. Anxiety disorders can take a number of forms. Common to all of these is anxiety so distressing it can interfere with a person’s ability to carry out or take pleasure in daily life.
However, early intervention and the right support can help young Australians cope with their mental health issues.
In the book, Gemma learns to overcome her ‘jitters’ about high places with the help of her friend, Marty, using the well-regarded ‘stepladder’ approach.
It is vital that you don’t allow your child to continually avoid difficult situations. Otherwise they don’t get a chance to develop healthy coping strategies. The step-ladder approach is a way that we slowly and kindly help our children face their fears.
Collett Smart is a psychologist, qualified teacher, lecturer and writer. She has more than 20 years’ experience working in private and public schools, as well as in private practice. She says, like Gemma, the best method for dealing with anxiety is to take small steps, rather than pushing the child to face their entire fear at once.
The stepladder approach, also known as graded hierarchical exposure, is one of the behavioural components of cognitive-behavioural therapy.
The final ‘rung’ is the task or situation your child finds distressing. Working back from there, you decide small tasks that a child can cope with.
“The stepladder approach involves starting with the part of the situation that causes your child the least amount of anxiety. This may need to be done a few times before a child is comfortable,” says Collett.
“Then move onto another step that makes your child a little more anxious Again repeat this until your child is able to handle it. All the while you are moving toward the more challenging situation at the top of the ‘ladder’.
“Praise or reward each small step they manage to take. Continue to praise the effort, rather than the end result.”
Gemma Gets the Jitters is a valuable learning resource for parents of children with phobias or anxiety.
Katrina based the book on her own experience with anxiety as a child and those of her own children.
“Like Gemma, I also had a fear of heights. Growing up in the Riverina, on the Hay plains, I didn’t come across mountains or tall buildings until my first trip to the Blue Mountains for a school excursion in Year 5. We were all bundled onto the Scenic Railway and the Scenic Skyway, which was a cable car going across a massive chasm,” she says.
“Again, on a school camp, I remember being forced to do a high rope course and I wasn’t allowed to come down until I went over the top. I found this experience upsetting and humiliating, and it wasn’t until a friend offered to help that I actually made it over. This experience did nothing to cure me of my fear of heights.”
Katrina stresses the importance of children having a strong support network in her book.
“For those who live with anxiety, supportive family and friends can make all the difference,” says Katrina.
“Having someone come alongside you to guide you through a difficult challenge can be very empowering.
“One of the most important things is for family and friends never to make fun of someone’s fears because it doesn’t help to overcome them.
Telling them it’s illogical doesn’t matter because for them it’s a real fear and they need to be supported through that fear. For example for a child who is scared of the dark a nightlight is one way of showing support.”
Collett says it’s important for parents to avoid criticising or dismissing their child’s anxious feelings with phrases like, “don’t be silly” or “that’s not something to worry about” or the obvious “don’t worry”.
Parent also need to avoid taking over for the child, as anxious children are often very happy to hand over the anxiety provoking task to someone else.
“Gently encourage a mind-set of ‘having a go’ – children learn they can actually cope in what they perceive as tough situations,” Collett says.
“It is vital that you don’t allow your child to continually avoid difficult situations. Otherwise they don’t get a chance to develop healthy coping strategies. The step-ladder approach is a way that we slowly and kindly help our children face their fears.”
Katrina says the message of the book is as relevant to adults as it is to children.
“If we want to teach our children to overcome their fears and not allow their fears to control them then it’s important that we share with our children ways that we face up to our fear and share the things we find confronting and the way that we manage anxiety.
The other thing about Gemma is that it teaches the physical symptoms of anxiety, like the pounding heart, sick stomach and legs going to jelly, as they can be frightening when you experience them for the first time. It's good for kids to understand what the symptoms of anxiety are.
Also when Gemma feels anxiety she talks to Marty about it and it’s important to talk to someone else about it. It goes back to adults not making fun of their children’s fears and to just be constantly talking about overcoming them.”
Anxiety Disorders and what to watch out for:
Registered psychologist and educator Collett Smart says it is completely normal for young children to experience fears and anxieties at certain times in their lives, and most get over these with a quick cuddle or reassurance. However for some children the anxiety tells them that the issue they are concerned about is much greater than it actually is, prompting the need to consider a possible anxiety disorder.
Seeing a GP is a great place to start if you are concerned about any health issues. Should your children display any symptoms your GP can provide assessment, information and treatment options
Things to look out for include:
- Becoming anxious more easily, or more intensely than other children their age or level of development
- When the anxiety prevents them from trying out new things
- If the anxiety interferes with activities, they love and were once involved in
- When anxiety begins to negatively affect their friendships and/or family relationships
- If fears and worries seem out of proportion to the situation
- When it results in physical difficulties such as; sleeplessness, sore tummies or headaches and so on
- When it results in mood changes such as; irritability, emotional outbursts, the need for regular reassurance, or difficulty concentrating
(It is important to remember that not all of the above signs need to be present at once, and not all children display their anxiety in the same way.)