I had the privilege of attending a Pastoral Care Cluster Meeting last week. Our guest speaker Mr Luke Lamprecht, spoke about an ever-increasing problem that many schools are facing – high anxiety and stress levels in children. The head of paediatrics at the University of the Free State, Professor Andre Venter has said that SA has the highest levels of anxiety in children in the world and it is on the increase.
Anxiety and stress are normal feelings and children worry at least as much as adults do and sometimes more, but they are far less able to verbalise their feelings (the prefrontal cortex of the brain associated with cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour only develops in one’s twenties). So children haven’t developed mature inner speech yet, and may simply appear angry or upset. Anxiety in children is called the Master Imposter and manifests in various ways, it affects the fight and flight responses in the brain, causing behaviours like avoidance – children make up excuses not to do things, like go to school – or they get very clingy, but they also can get aggressive, which is the fight response. We don’t usually think of anxiety as the cause of aggression, but most often it is.
The symptoms of anxiety in children are often mistaken for something else. Sometimes they’re seen as just excessively shy or quiet. Boys are often labelled as naughty, disruptive or difficult. But when anxiety isn’t seen for what it is, it can affect a child’s mental and emotional development.
Severe anxiety that’s left untreated could develop into an anxiety disorder or lead to depression.