Dealing with childhood anxieties and fears
Kids today experience more change, more rapidly than previous generations. They are exposed to world events through the internet and media. Most kids, like adults, experience some anxious moments or have fearful thoughts and feelings from time to time about certain events.
Anxiety is a common and normal reaction and everyone experiences feelings of anxiety from time to time. Anxiety is more pervasive than worry. It builds and carries on. Kids worry about big and little things. Typical childhood fears change with age. They include fear of strangers, heights, darkness, animals, blood, insects, and being left alone. Kids often learn to fear a specific object or situation after having an unpleasant experience, such as a dog bite or an accident. Separation anxiety is common when young children are starting school.
Children often don’t recognise anxiety for what it is and may instead think there is something “wrong” with them or they are weird, weak or going crazy. They may feel jittery, uneasy, on edge, nervous, worried, or dread about something that might happen. This thinking only makes them feel more anxious.
It’s natural for new, unfamiliar, or challenging situations to prompt feelings of anxiety or nervousness. Anxiety can be triggered by issues such as bullying, not doing well in school, making friends, fallout with friends, peer pressure, family conflicts, performance in sports, moving house, divorce. Although these situations don’t actually threaten a person’s safety, they can cause someone to feel “threatened” by potential embarrassment, worry about making a mistake, fitting in, stumbling over words, being accepted or rejected, or losing pride.
Anxiety can be a good thing when it helps you deal with a tense situation. For example, when you’re studying for a test, a little anxiety can make you want to study hard so you do well. But at other times, anxiety can be harmful, especially when it is excessive and irrational. While fear is the emotion we feel in the presence of threat, anxiety is a sense of anticipated danger, trouble, or threat.
Feelings of anxiety can be mild or intense (or anywhere in between), depending on the person and the situation. Mild anxiety can feel like a sense of uneasiness or nervousness. More intense anxiety can feel like fear, dread, or panic. Worrying and feelings of tension and stress are forms of anxiety. So are stage fright and the shyness that can come with meeting new people.
What are the key features of Anxiety?
The key feature of anxiety is excessive worry and it is anticipatory in nature. So anxious kids are generally worried about what will happen later in the day, tomorrow, or next week or next year.
What maintains the worry is AVOIDANCE. So the things a child is worried about they will avoid and stay away from. Therefore they never actually face their fear, which keeps the fear going.
An anxious child pays a lot of attention to threat and they radar in on situations they perceive as threatening. For instance, arriving at a birthday party and noticing a child who is crying and upset rather than the children who are laughing and having a good time.
They get a lot of psychosomatic complaints so they complain of tummy aches, or headaches (migraines), so muscles are aching and what you find is that these complaints are quite real, they’re not actually making them up they actually experience these things. There may be nothing medically wrong. It’s the result of what’s happening in their heads.
It takes them longer to calm down.
They also have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. So they’ll go to bed but lay in bed for a long time before they fall asleep, worrying about tomorrow.
Some anxious children become shy and withdraw but not all do. Some are very confident and socially appropriate and very skilled at making friends. But internally they might worry about being a perfectionist, or following all the rules correctly.
What situations might trigger anxiety?
Situations that might trigger anxiety include schoolwork becoming more difficult or demanding, responsibilities increasing, conflicts or fallouts with friends, peer pressure, bullying, moving schools, separating from a parent, fear of the dark, storms, or major life events such as divorce, illness or death in the family. While some children may have developed enough resilience to cope with these multiple stressors, others will become overly anxious.
Moving from class to class, juggling homework, sports, extra curricular activities and navigating friendships is not an easy task. All of these pressures can build up and result in anxiety.
How can parents recognise the signs of anxiety?
We encourage parents to be alert to subtle signs that their child is not coping or that they are troubled. Some signs include:
- Unrealistic and excessive worries about past or future events or activities. (e.g. “what if” questions)
- School refusal
- Avoiding doing things or going places
- Sleep disturbances
- Hypersensitive to criticism
- Social withdrawal
- Low self-esteem
- Scared of leaving a parent or facing new situations
- Decline in attention
- Upset over changes in routine
- Frequent physical complaints such as:
- a fast heartbeat,
- rapid breathing,
- a feeling of fullness in the throat or chest,
- trembling hands or body,
- feeling sick and
- sweating (more than normal).
- Cries easily
Tips for parents to help their child deal with anxiety
- Be supportive, empathic and listen.
- Encourage your children to talk about their fears and worries. They need to know it’s ok to talk about these things.
- Show acceptance of their worry thoughts or anxious feelings. Acknowledge that your child’s fears are real to them.
- Reward brave, non-anxious behavior Encourage children to have a go!
- Break challenges down into small steps.
- Reassure your child that everyone feels anxious at times and that while it might feel uncomfortable it will eventually decrease.
- Help your child recognise physical signs of anxiety early so it doesn’t escalate. Remind them to stop and think.
- Avoid taking over. Children with anxiety are usually very happy for someone else to do things for them. However, if adults take over for them it stops them from learning how to cope for themselves.
- Encourage relaxation and calm breathing which allows for greater control over thinking.
- Help them feel more empowered. Remind them of times in the past when they overcame a fear. Eg. Remember when you went to dream world and didn’t want to go on the rides and you overcame your fear. You can do it.
All children experience difficulties at times. But if their troubles don’t go away or they interfere with everyday life, they may be in need of assistance. If anxiety is interfering in your child’s everyday life seek assistance from the school guidance officer or other mental health professional. Don’t ignore the problem and trust it will disappear.