By Lisa Reichelt, Parent Coach
What is anxiety in children exactly? Shouldn’t adults be the ones who experience anxiety? Shouldn’t a child’s life be carefree and happy? Certainly happiness is our desire for our children, but sometimes there are things that get in the way. Currently many children suffer from anxiety. There are all kinds of hypotheses as to why there is an increase in childhood anxiety, but for the parent who is trying to lovingly care for their child who is experiencing this, it is more important to find relief than to affix blame.
Children with anxiety may display the following:
- Being clingy, not wanting to leave your side
- Easily begin to cry in situations that seem non-threatening
- Muscle tension, or any kind of expression of tenseness
- Being grouchy for no good reason
- Poor sleeping habits
- Refusal to eat a meal (especially at school)
- Thumping heart beat
- Refusal to use the restroom in a public place
- Overly afraid of making a mistake
If your child is displaying these symptoms on a regular basis, it would be wise to consider whether they are experiencing anxiety or not. If they are, there are steps you can take to help relieve their symptoms and to assist them in overcoming the debilitating effects of anxiety. Although occasional anxiety can be okay, severe anxiety can delay or alter a child’s normal and natural development. There are several types of anxiety of which you should be aware in order to accurately diagnose the cause of your child’s symptoms.
Types of Anxiety
Separation Anxiety- This type occurs when your child needs to go someplace without you or is concerned about you leaving them at home. They may not adjust to the new daycare setting or cry and fuss about “going to” and “staying at” school. Separation from you causes them to fear that you will not return. Their fear is irrational but it is very real to them. Children with this type of anxiety may be able to function at the location without you, but they may not be performing at their best. They may be experiencing some of the symptoms listed above. This makes it difficult for them to have a positive experience at school, daycare or their grandparent’s home.
Social Anxiety- This type of anxiety is displayed when children are overly concerned about how other people may think, speak or judge their thoughts and actions. Social anxiety can be especially debilitating for children who refuse to participate in developmentally appropriate activities. If your child doesn’t want to join the other children playing on the playground he/she may have social anxiety. Additionally, social anxiety can be demonstrated by the child who insists on being in charge of every situation and every person. By seeking that deep level of control, they feel they can guarantee control of the other person’s thoughts and feelings. They wrongly believe this will keep the others from having negative thoughts about them. Extremely controlling others never works to alleviate the anxiety. It almost always backfires.
Phobias- Many people experience phobias. They are real and they can be debilitating. I have dear friends who each have a phobia, she is afraid of spiders, he is afraid of bees. As a married couple they are able to help one another to cope by clearing out the offending insect. With children phobias are not as easy as clearing out the spider webs because common childhood phobias include: animals, the dark, storms, getting sick (or a parent getting sick), the dark, or flying. Whatever your child’s phobia is, it is a real fear for them that doesn’t leave their minds. They have trouble turning off the fear and therefore are always “on guard” against their phobia. If you think about a time when you are being extremely cautious, imagine what it would be like to be “cautious” 24/7! This is how your child feels.
Generalized worrying- This type of anxiety happens when children worry about things that are out of their control or that seem to be of little consequence. Your child may anticipate that bad things are going to happen, or be overly concerned about their performance. This can happen as children get involved in sports and other extra-curricular activities, or it can affect their willingness to attend school. For these children, worry is uncontrollable and all consuming.
Do you see your child in some of these descriptions? If so, it may be time to talk with a professional. You can start with your child’s teacher, a school counselor or your pediatrician. They can help you sort through all the available resources for childhood anxiety.