x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

30% rise in children needing treatment for anxiety, experts say

Both Emiratis and expatriates are affected and children are referred by parents and through schools.

ABU DHABI // A 30 per cent rise in the number of children being presented with anxiety issues at a psychologist’s practice over the past two years is alarming health experts.

They attribute the rise to domestic arguments, parents separating and feelings of neglect and isolation in extended families that are common in the country.

Both Emiratis and expatriates are affected and children are referred by parents and through schools.

“There is approximately a 25 to 30 per cent increase in children needing therapy, found by simple observation,” said Dr Dolly Habbal, clinical psychologist at Gulf Diagnostic Centre Hospital in Abu Dhabi.

“The reason is parents now realise their children have a problem. What they don’t realise is that they are contributing to the problem,” said Dr Habbal, who is from Lebanon.

She has been treating children in the country for 10 years, but has recorded the significant increase over the past 24 months. “Teachers are also referring the children to get professional help. That is pushing the parents to seek help to keep the child in school,” the psychologist said.

Physical and verbal abuse are major concerns, while other children are “confused” because of large families in the house, which can give mixed messages, she said.

Dr Veena Luthra, a consultant psychiatrist at the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology in Abu Dhabi, said the children she treats for anxiety are those who see their parents fighting or have an absent parent figure.

The child is usually affected when parents are undergoing marital issues or separating, said Dr Luthra.

“When children are younger there is a lot of anxiety, sadness. The child might be crying more, clinging to the parent. Because they are afraid that one parent is gone, they are afraid the other will too,” said Dr Luthra, who is from India.

“Teenagers show rebelliousness and no respect to parents, because they are expressing their anger,” said Dr Luthra, who is from India.

“If the child is anxious, you should find out what the situation is. Anxiety starts in childhood and progresses into adulthood.”

Dr Luthra said children who move countries frequently also suffer from the same issues.

Another concern is the role of parents, who often don’t know what to do and only inflame an already fraught situation.

Dr Habbal said parents can react in extreme ways when they can’t or don’t know how to deal with a child who is suffering from anxiety.

In Arabian Gulf families, it is common for parents to have more than five children, Dr Habbal said.

This can create a sense of segregation. Big families lead to chaos in the household, with no clear authority, she said.

“They [parents] are either very permissive – giving them whatever they want without setting rules, or very authoritative – physically or verbally aggressive,” said Dr Habbal.

Sometimes parents resort to hitting their child if he or she does not listen to them, talks back, or hits another sibling, she said.

During treatment, Dr Habbal provides a contract for the child and the parent to ensure the same abusive behaviour is not repeated.

“I make the parents apologise for their behaviour in front of the child so the child realises that if his parents are apologising and stating that this behaviour is wrong then it will be easier for the child to modify his behaviour,” she said.

Dr Habbal stressed the need for consistency to prevent the child getting “contradictory messages”.

“Even if there was a broken home, it is vital to have clear coordination between the parents in regards to the child,” she said.

“In many cases, separation is healthy, it is better than having the parents fighting. The main concern is to follow up on children. Sadly, in most cases, that is not found.”

aalkhoori@thenational.ae