If I had a nickel for every time parents asked me if they should be worried about their child’s worries, I would have way too many nickels. As a parent, I completely understand the question. I never want my own children to worry or have anxieties; I want them to always be happy. But as a psychologist, I understand that anxiety and fears are a normal, healthy part of life, and I would actually be hurting my children by never letting them feel those normal human emotions.
The truth is that all children go through phases when they are more worried about things than at other times. This is a normal part of growth and maturation. As the brain develops, it creates the capacity for anxiety, which can actually be protective in nature. For example, stranger anxiety is not typically developed in newborns until the age of 6 months. It is considered a normal developmental fear and allows children to discriminate between people they recognize and people they don’t, which helps to keep kids safe. Would you want your infant cuddling up to strangers and embracing them like family? Of course not. You want your child to have some healthy fears of new people. We actually teach this concept later in life when we advise our kids to not talk to strangers.
Toddlers between the ages of 10-18 months typically develop anxiety resulting from being separated from a caregiver. This may result in crying or tantrums when separated from parents. Kids between the ages of 4-6 typically develop fears of imaginary creatures, like the Boogeyman, aliens, ghosts and monsters. They can also worry about things their brains are seeing and processing, but can’t comprehend yet, like snakes, spiders, bees and sand. Kids ages 7-12 often worry about real circumstances like bodily harm and natural disasters.
Parents should be concerned about their child’s anxiety when it is not related to a developmental stage, or it becomes excessive or unrealistic and interferes with home life, academic performance or peer relationships. The term anxiety refers to a fear or apprehension that is out of proportion to the context of a situation or developmental stage. It usually occurs when there is no actual danger, however, the threat of danger seems real to the person in the moment. Anxiety is a highly visceral experience. Kids generally complain of butterflies in the stomach, a rapid heartbeat or sweating, and have a strong desire to immediately leave the situation that caused the anxiety.
But how do you, as a parent, know when the anxiety is excessive? If you answer yes to several of the following questions, then you may want to seek help: Has your child experienced a decline in the quality of his schoolwork, refused to go to school or avoided afterschool activities? Is your child too shy to speak to non-family members? Does your child seem anxious when interacting with peers? Does your child have excessive fears of a situation, like flying or enclosed spaces, or of a creature or object, such as spiders, bees or elevators? Does your child experience frequent nightmares, headaches or stomachaches? Does your child often redo tasks in efforts to be perfect? Does your child spend a great deal of time each day doing things repeatedly, such as hand washing or checking things?
All of these questions identify symptoms of anxiety disorders, which about 15 percent of children ages 9-17 experience at some point in their lives. There are several types of anxiety disorders that affect children and adolescents. Keep reading to learn of the three most common.
Separation anxiety disorder is characterized by an intense preoccupation with harm coming to caregivers when the child is separated from them. This is different from the normal separation anxiety seen in the first two years of life. Separation anxiety occurs in approximately 5 percent of school-age kids. It tends to affect girls more than boys and generally starts by age 10. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) refers to a pattern of intense, recurrent worries about various life circumstances. Children with GAD worry about many things, such as the future, being on time for appointments, health, school performance, crime, change in routines and family matters. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by having intrusive thoughts that cause anxiety and repetitive behaviors that decrease the anxiety. Symptoms may include excessive hand washing, checking, tapping, touching, and ordering and arranging items. OCD affects approximately 3 to 5 percent of the population and affects boys and girls equally.
If you are concerned that your child may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, the best thing to do is seek professional counseling. Cognitive and behavioral therapy has been shown to be highly effective in treating anxiety disorders by teaching children valuable skills and strategies to overcome problematic issues.