Anxiety in Childhood

According to anxiety is “the mind and body’s reaction to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations. It’s the sense of uneasiness, distress, or dread you feel before a significant event.” Let’s face it, everyone may feel anxious at some point within their lifetime. In fact, fear and anxiety can be beneficial emotions, keeping us safe from potentially dangerous situations.

It’s normal for a child to feel worried or anxious every now and again. Situations occur every day that most children have never experienced before – because they are young and have not had that much life experience😊. As a specialist in child development, I find myself frequently discussing worry and anxiety with parents. Can your toddler really have anxiety? They’re only 2, what do they have to be anxious about? Today we’re going to look and childhood anxiety and what you can do to help ease your child’s worry.

What is anxiety?

I’m going to drop an honesty bomb on you right now. As a child, I experienced extreme anxiety. It was mainly separation anxiety, but anxiety, nonetheless. A therapist once defined anxiety for me in a way that I will never forget. In fact, I use this definition to this day: anxiety is one foot in the past and one foot in the future.

You cannot experience the present and be mindful of what is currently occurring if you are worried that something that happened once before is going to happen again in the future. Anxiety is a normal part of development, both behaviorally and emotionally. Think about it…almost every experience is new to a child. They very rarely have an experience to fall back on to compare something new to. And so much of anxiety has to do with feeling out of control – not being able to know what to expect or control a situation.

Is anxiety normal in childhood?

To ease your own anxiety, yes. Some types of anxiety are common in children between the ages of 1 to 3. I see them all of the time in my practice, and if you think about it, you’ve probably seen them too:

Separation Anxiety: Although this tends to peak around 18 months, it can start around the age of 9 months and depending on your child, rear its ugly head well into the preschool years. Even though your child has object permanence and knows that when he doesn’t see you, you’re still there, he may feel that if you’re out of his sight you will forget about him. He’ll cling, cry, scream…most parents have experienced it and it typically subsides as your child gets older.

Stranger Anxiety: You know this one, whenever you enter a new space and see new faces your child clings to you and turns to bury her head in your shoulder. Sometimes this feeling goes away quickly, and your child is able to interact with these new individuals. Other times it may take a little longer for them to feel safe.

Phobias: There is a certain situation or thing that your child is fearful of. Sometimes it’s bees, other times it’s school. For me it was dogs…I was bitten at the age of 2 and spent years terrified of dogs (I eventually got over that fear as I have a dog of my own). But my toddler years were spent being terrified of any dog that was within my sight line.

What causes anxiety?

There are many things that can cause anxiety (such as a frightening experience or event), but for young children the following 2 examples can usually explain a lot:

Lack of Routine. As adults, sometimes we like to fly with the wind and do things without making plans. For kids, this can be very anxiety inducing. Kids LOVE schedules and routines. They may fight you on it (this has more to do with them fighting for independence) but ultimately, they thrive with routines. Think about the school day – most teachers have the schedule listed on the board so that the kids know what is coming. Transitions can sometimes be difficult, but if a child knows what to expect, more often than not their anxiety will be quelled.

Big Changes. Big changes shift the comfort level. For example, are you moving? Start talking to your kids about their new room, what the house will look like, take them over beforehand so that they can begin to see what the house will look like. Maybe make a book with pictures of the house that you can read every day. If you know that a big change is coming, you may want to start talking to your child about it before it’s going to happen. The more they know what to anticipate, the less likely they are to have major anxiety over it.

How do I know if my child is anxious?

What does anxiety look like in a child? It may look a bit different than you would expect. In young children anxiety can cause dramatic changes in their behavior. Some children may act out, talking back, pushing their siblings, not listening, etc. Here are some other things you may see from an anxious child:

  • Change in eating habits
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Lethargy or non-stop movement
  • Increased crying or tantrums
  • Avoidance
  • Difficulties transitioning
  • Physical ailments such as stomachache or headache
  • Reliance on calming strategies (picking nails, chewing their hair, rubbing a lovie)

Click here for your FREE quick reference guide on Childhood Anxiety

Anxiety can look different in different kids

Paige is now 5. She comes from me…so I knew early on there would likely be a bit of anxiety in her. I’ve recently noticed that when she becomes anxious about something she engages in the following behaviors: picking her fingernails, rubbing the tag inside her shirt (yes, I know, most children don’t want tags in their clothes…mine gets upset if there is not a tag), being overall nasty and not the sweet girl I know her to be. If I see any of the above, I know it’s time to stop what I’m doing for a bit and focus a little on her.

Tyler is 2 ½, younger but still a child that experiences mild anxiety.  Separation anxiety recently began to rear its ugly head, but only really regarding sleeping in his room. He kept coming into our room saying, “mommy I NEED you”. For him, the anxiety presented through tantrums, and changes in his sleep…he went from sleeping straight through the night to waking up every 1-2 hours to make sure we were still there. It took about 2 weeks – of reassuring him we were here, reading books about parents coming back and always being there, etc. – but we finally returned to him sleeping through the night.

What can I do to help?

It’s important that you remain calm in these situations. If you get upset and start to scream and yell in response to their negative behaviors, more often than not, those behaviors are going to escalate. Remember your child can and will feed off of your physical and emotional state. If you remain calm and breathe through the experience it can help your child to calm down.

Respect your child’s feeling, acknowledge them and let them know that you are there for them

I see you’re very upset right now and that’s ok. I’m here.

Sometimes just sitting with them is all they need. Eventually you will want to speak with them about their anxiety but not when they’re in the throes of it. They won’t be able to process it then. When they have calmed down, have a conversation about what happened. See if they can express their fears to you, tell you how they’re feeling or what they were feeling.

I think one of the most important things that we can do as parents and caregivers is notice the changes and acknowledge them. Now this doesn’t mean to just accept everything. For example, if I notice Paige is starting to hit, yell or scream, there are still consequences to the action; I remove her body from the situation, take some ‘calm your body’ time and begin to process. I first try to understand where the behavior is coming from.

I’m here. I see you’re very upset right now and that’s ok. But it is not ok to shove your brother. I’m here.

The goal is never to get rid of the anxiety, because it’s there. But you do want to try to manage it. Help your child learn to live in the situations that may cause them anxiety and help them be functional in the face of it. Don’t avoid situations because they will lead to anxiety, this will only make matters worse in the long run. (click here for your FREE resource on Tips to Help Reduce Anxiety)

What if their anxiety isn’t getting better?

Well, as I’ve stated, anxiety and worry are typical in various stages of development. However, if you notice that your child’s anxiety is interfering with their participation in life or it is disrupting their normal activities, it may be time to speak with your pediatrician or a mental health professional.

Anxiety is not the end of childhood.

You know it was my experience with anxiety and my struggles as a child that made me want to work with children and pursue the career path that I have chosen. My anxieties have never completely gone away, but I have learned to manage them so that I can have the most wonderful, productive life. Anxiety isn’t always a bad thing, however if not dealt with it can be dysfunctional. As long as we learn how to accept it, learn from it and move forward through life with it, we can ensure that our children live their best lives. 😉

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