As kids head back to school from the holidays and everyday stresses begin to ramp up, Brock researchers warn that anxiety can interfere with cognitive performance — even in children.
Associate Professor Ayda Tekok-Kilic and PhD candidate Veronica Panchyshyn in the Department of Child and Youth Studies say that similar to adults, children and youth experiencing worry and anxious thoughts can show psychological symptoms, such as irritability, and physical symptoms, such as sleep disturbance, and experience social and academic challenges.
The researchers are keen to determine why some children develop more severe anxiety than others. They believe that individual biological, societal and psychological risk factors are involved.
“Multiple factors influence how anxiety relates to cognition,” says Tekok-Kilic, Founding Director of Brock’s Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory and the Cognition and Anxiety Laboratory at the Pathstone Children’s Mental Health Research Institute. “This relationship is also multidirectional, such that anxiety may lead to cognitive difficulties, but these cognitive difficulties may also predict anxiety.”
Panchyshyn explains that anxious thoughts compete with other tasks, such as school work, and require simultaneous attention, which can be draining.
“When someone with anxiety is completing a cognitively demanding task like a test question, anxious thoughts are extremely distracting,” she says. “Anxious thoughts can also consume one’s short-term memory, preventing complete focus on the task at hand.”
She adds that anxiety in academic settings, which may range from difficulty separating from parents at drop-off to avoiding handing in homework to be “judged” by teachers, can be misinterpreted as a lack of academic ability. This can be especially true for children who experience test anxiety — and that can develop as early as Grade 2.
The researchers say it is normal for kids to respond to stressful events, but that children whose reactions are severe or persistent may require additional support.
Common warning signs of anxiety in childhood may include constant worrying, difficulty concentrating, irritability or avoidance of everyday activities such as going to school or seeing friends.
They also say parents should keep an eye out for warning signs that may emerge after a traumatic stressor.
“Uncertainty related to COVID-19 is one stressor that may provoke anxiety in some children and youth,” says Tekok-Kilic. “It is critical for parents to contextualize this uncertainty to ensure their child feels supported and understood.”
She also notes that children look to their parents’ reactions and behaviour to determine how to regulate their own emotions in difficult situations, so caregivers can help by modelling calm behaviour in new or uncertain situations.
“It is important to help children understand that uncertainty is part of life and help them develop strategies to cope with uncertainty, rather than trying to always control uncertainty by limiting exposure to life events that may lead to anxiety,” says Tekok-Kilic. “Most importantly, make sure to validate your child’s concerns to ensure they feel supported in uncertain situations.”
Panychyshyn emphasizes that it is important to seek help from a health-care professional if a child is struggling.
“Each child is different, so it may take time to find the appropriate treatment,” she says. “But with adequate care and treatment, individuals with anxiety can learn to better manage and cope with their symptoms and lead successful lives.”
Panchyshyn recently received a MITACS Accelerate grant to continue investigating the risks that predict anxiety as part of a larger study in a research internship supervised by Tekok-Kilic and partly supported by Pathstone Mental Health.
“Understanding these multiple risk factors and their synergistic effects will provide valuable insight toward anxiety prevention and treatment strategies in children and youth,” says Tekok-Kilic.