Childhood Anxiety- What’s Normal?

Anxiety can be a normal part of human functioning and something that we all experience to some degree. As a parent with an overly anxious child however, this can be extremely heartbreaking to watch, not to mention frustrating and downright annoying, particularly when it interferes with everyday routines or planned activities.

The child that wont let go of your leg for the entire party can be challenging at best. Aside from the annoyance of lugging around the extra appendage hanging from your body, it can be upsetting to get to a party that the child was  so looking forward to, only to have them miss out on all the fun. Dropping a child off at childcare and hearing that they cried alone in a corner for the majority of the day can be devastating to hear, not to mention the guilt that it lumps on an already stressed working parent. But how do we know if it is a case of simply having a shy kid who takes a bit of warming up, or if we have a child who is already showing clear signs of anxiety that may continue to impede them throughout their childhood and beyond?

What is anxiety?

In a nutshell, anxiety is the bodies response to real or perceived danger. It is the ‘flight or fight’ mechanism that is naturally present in us all. When danger, excitement or fear are detected, our body makes physiological changes to prepare for this onslaught and thus we are better able to combat the attack. When we are overly anxious however, this fight or flight mechanism and the physiological changes are not in proportion to the actual danger that is presented, and thus prevent us from negotiating a more realistic response.

What is normal?

Normal responses to anxiety include such reactions as babies and toddlers crying at loud noises or at separation from the mother or primary carer (this separation anxiety is normal and usually begins around 8 months). Preschoolers fearing the dark or of being alone are also usual childhood anxieties,  as are  school age children having a fear of the supernatural, ghosts, criticism, failure or physical harm.
Whilst fears can always be present, real worries do not tend to come about until around 8 years of age. By this time children are better able to imagine the future as their thinking has matured to a point of being able to predict consequences.  For some children therefore, this ability to predict possible future consequences can cause enormous distress, despite these concerns frequently being unlikely or unfounded.  Before this time, our kids pretty much live day to day, moment to moment and respond to  each challenge with the means they have available. Often they are able to move on without any further thought. For those that are unable to do so however, we may need to look at ways of helping them cope with these situations in a way that allows them to enjoy all that life has to offer.

When is anxiety a problem?
Anxiety can become a problem if it prevents your child from doing things they actually enjoy.  Most kids want to play the games at a party or engage their passion for football by joining in at Auskick. When they refuse to participate in these activities, it becomes apparent that the anxiety is interfering with the fulfillment of their daily activities.
Anxiety is a problem if it interferes in relationships and is preventing your child from making friends. This can be upsetting to watch a child not engage with others for fear of how others will respond to them. It is also upsetting for them to not get invited to places as they are not seen to be participating  in the play or conversations.

Whilst we don’t like to think of comparing our children to others, if your child’s response to a situation is so very different to the rest of the kids and the reaction itself is so much more severe, then you may need to start to think about ways you can help your child with these situations.

Some of the ways anxiety presents-
It may simply be a shutting down or a refusal to participate or it may be a tantrum complete with kicking and screaming! In severe cases anxiety can lead to panic attacks that come about due to the increased heart rate, leading to increased breathing and oxygen intake, which in turn can cause many physiological changes such as nausea, sweating, shaking and even fainting.

Different types of anxiety-
There are many different types of anxiety but the most common forms that usually present with children are:

Generalised Anxiety – worry about a whole range of situations from schoolwork, to health, to sporting achievements, to friendships to worries about the end of the world. It is often associated with the need for perfection, with the constant desire for reassurance and the fear of new situations.

Separation Anxiety– worry about separation from mum and dad well beyond the baby years. They struggle or protest when having to leave a parent, they feign sickness in order to stay home, and they worry about either themselves or mum or dad having an accident or getting hurt whilst they are apart.

Social Anxiety– have difficulty joining in to a group or making friends, are overly shy or withdrawn, fear making a fool or embarrassing themselves and thus avoid situations where they may be forced into speaking out or interacting, such as putting their hand up in class or going to a party

Whilst anxiety can be very debilitating it can also be very treatable. For those whose children show signs of anxiety that are interfering with daily life and relationships there are things we as a parent can do to help them learn the strategies necessary to deal with the extra challenges they may face.

Have your children faced issues of anxiety?  How did you cope? Did you have any strategies to help them cope?

So stay tuned for my next post on how we as parents can help deal with childhood (and adult)  anxiety.

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Kristy

    This was great. I am a school psychologist and work with a couple of kiddos who I think have some real anxiety issues. I have talked with their parents about it, but I feel that anxiety in children is still a subject that people aren’t too knowledgeable about or willing to face.

    1. Martine

      Thanks Kristy, there certainly does seem to be many kids suffering from this which is such a shame as it does prevent them from enjoying many things. Luckily it is treatable and hopefully with more school counsellors recognizing it these kids will get the help they need.

  2. Susan, the Book Chook

    This is an excellent and realistic explanation of anxiety in kids. I’m really looking forward to reading your suggested strategies.

    My observation is that anxious parents often have anxious kids. One suggestion for helping adults cope with anxiety is for them to use realistic self-talk and cognitive behaviour therapy. I’m wondering if that also applies to kids.

    1. Martine

      Thanks Susan. And you are right there often is an anxious parent behind an anxious child (though not always of course) & so many of my strategies rely on things the parent can do to help. Apart from a shift in attitude from “they can’t” to “they can if you let them try”, there are certainly some elements of cognitive behaviour therapy and self talk that can all be used to help the anxious child.

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