Anxiety, worry, fear – we think of these as emotions for adults, not children, right? What do children have to be worried and anxious about anyway? They don’t have bills to pay, or bosses to account to, or demanding spouses. They don’t have to worry about their taxes, or the car not starting, or if the check they just wrote is going to bounce.
Children of all ages and stages worry about more things than most of us can remember. It may be the transient anxiety of taking a test, the ongoing worry about being bullied at recess, or the terror of whether their parents will get divorced. Worries and anxiety can manifest as nail biting, tantrums, difficulty going to sleep, nightmares, over-eating, weight loss, irritability, clinginess, stomach aches, headaches, and a host of other symptoms. In adolescence, it can mean involvement with drugs or alcohol or running with the wrong crowd. Children who are worried, anxious, or shy frequently have a hard time learning some of the tools for managing school, work, and relationships. Their self-confidence fluctuates. They sometimes withdraw from life’s challenges.
What is anxiety, anyway, and where does it come from?
Human beings are biologically geared to get anxious and to worry. Fear is the body’s first alert system to a potential danger or to a threat. When we feel threatened, we react with the ‘flight or fight’ instinct before our higher level thinking can even assess what, where, or how big the danger is. As we grow and learn, we discover that there are many times when our bodies react in fear even when there is really nothing to worry about. We find ourselves in a cold sweat with heart palpitations, thinking about a meeting at work the next day. Then, the next day comes, and sometimes we breeze through the meeting and wonder why we got so anxious in the first place. It takes many, many experiences in our lives to teach us that sometimes our bodies and minds overreact to situations. That overreaction becomes anxiety.
So what do children have to be anxious about? Consider a child who learns that her favorite grandfather has ‘passed away – he went to sleep and never woke up again.’ She starts sleeping with her parents, which they understand as feeling sad about her grandfather. They then try to get her back into her own bed after a few days, and find that she has temper tantrums. Then, her mother goes on a business trip and she refuses to go to school. When her mother comes back, she is clingy, irritable, and won’t go to school or to bed without her mother there. What’s going on?
There are different kinds of anxiety that children can have. The child described above was developing what is called ‘Separation Anxiety’, in response to past losses and fear of future losses. Other kinds of anxiety include social anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, panic disorder and generalized anxiety.
Children who develop a higher than normal level of anxiety tend to have certain biological and personality traits. They are often born ‘shy.’ That is, when confronted with a new situation, they tend to withdraw or stay at the edges, rather than dive into it. According to Paul Foxman, Ph.D., personality-wise, these children tend to have a strong sense of responsibility, hold themselves to high standards for achievement, have difficulty relaxing, tend to want to please others and have difficulty with assertiveness, be oversensitive to criticism and, basically, worry a lot.
So, what can you, as a parent do to help your child? Here are some tips:
- Help your children develop a vocabulary for their feelings. Help them identify what feelings might contribute to their anxiety by having them tell you about things that happened that day which made them feel sad, or mad, or glad, or scared.
- Help your children talk about what they are worried about. Help them think through a ‘game-plan’ for dealing with whatever they are concerned with. Having a plan and a back-up plan can help increase confidence.
- Rehearse with your child. First, ask them to imagine in their head each step they will take to deal with the frightening situation. Then ask them to act it out with you.
- Help your child learn to ‘relax.’ There are breathing techniques, yoga, exercise, ‘down-time’, massage time, and many other ways you can help them relax their bodies, which helps to relax their minds.
- Teach your child to stop unwanted thoughts by thinking about other things or doing something different.
- If your child is a perfectionist, teach the art of doing a ‘good-enough’ job on some tasks.
- Your child may need more assistance in dealing with anxiety. School guidance counselors, social skills groups, and counselors can all be helpful if you feel that more help is needed.
There are also some excellent books for children of all ages:
The Difficult Child, by Stanley Turecki, M.D., and Leslie Tonner
The Worried Child – Recognizing Anxiety in Children and Helping Them Heal by Paul Foxman, Ph.D.
What To Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner, Ph.D.