Focus on Fitness: School psychologist advises exercise for children

Focus on Fitness: School psychologist advises exercise for children

By Gloria Schwartz

Anxiety in young children is a phenomenon that is more prevalent or perhaps better recognized than a generation or two ago. Jenny Glassman, a psychologist who works in the public school system in Ottawa, says it’s important for parents to recognize the signs of anxiety in their children – signs which sometimes differ from those in adults – and to have resources and strategies for successfully helping their children cope.

Glassman says children are becoming more socially isolated and this sometimes causes them to have anxiety. Social media is a contributing factor. Children as young as five to 10 have fewer face-to-face conversations as they spend significant time online. Many children feel socially disconnected and feel pressure to be constantly connected via social media.

Because so much time is spent online, children may be getting inadequate exercise and may lack the social skills that are learned through sports and playtime. Glassman also points out the social connections between parents and their children are different or decreased compared to just a few years ago, as parents spend more time looking at their own devices and less time engaging with their young children. Another issue, says Glassman, is that expectations and academic demands placed on children are greater than in previous generations.

Young children cannot express when they have anxiety, so what should parents look for in their children? An increase in negative behaviours is a clue that a child may be experiencing anxiety. Symptoms may include agitation, restlessness, headaches or stomach aches, inattention, avoidance, crying and tantrums.

Glassman says that when a child’s world seems to get smaller and smaller (e.g., the child no longer wants to go out as much, has less face-to-face social interactions or is reluctant to attend school), the child may have severe anxiety. Milder forms of anxiety should not be overlooked. Glassman says behavioural difficulties (e.g., a meltdown) may stem from stress and from being overwhelmed by the demands of the environment. Other possible signs of anxiety include sleep disturbances and changes in sleep patterns.

“Look at the underlying factors of misbehaviour and start thinking in terms of stress behaviour, not bad behaviour,” advises Glassman. In other words, children who are acting out are not necessarily being “bad” but may be behaving in that manner because of their anxiety and their lack of coping strategies.

Some children seem to outgrow these behaviours. Glassman says children often develop coping skills by observing parents modelling positive behaviours. Sometimes children don’t develop the appropriate coping skills. A good strategy, says Glassman, is to get young children involved in physical activities.

Regular physical activity – ideally 60 minutes per day for children – is a proven preventative strategy for chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease as well as for helping prevent or decrease some mental health issues such as anxiety and mild depression. In both adults and children, exercise releases mood-enhancing brain chemicals and helps take the mind off worries.

Team sports such as hockey or soccer or individual sports such as swimming or martial arts may be better suited depending on the child’s interests and abilities. Yoga is a practice that can also provide many benefits for young children with regards to anxiety prevention and reduction.

In addition to contributing to both physical and mental wellness, Glassman says children learn a variety of skills that go beyond the sport itself, For example, they learn about boundaries, rules, expectations, sharing, cooperation, focusing attention, respect, self-esteem, leadership, personal growth and self-regulation of their emotions. These are life skills that children need to function in society.

Mindfulness is another strategy that Glassman says helps reduce anxiety in children. She recommends a series of short, guided meditation recordings called Mind Masters for children six to 12. The series and accompanying information for parents are available on the CHEO website at Some teachers use these resources in their classrooms. Parents can use them at home with their children.

The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” Parents want the best for their children. Glassman’s advice can help parents recognize and deal with their child’s mild anxiety. For severe anxiety, Glassman says psychological or pharmacological treatment may be required.