Don’t fear the monster under your child’s bed: Recognising and managing anxiety so it doesn’t affect your kid
This 6-minute read will tell you about common fears in children, what anxiety is, why we have it, and when it becomes a problem. You will also learn what anxiety can look like in children, how children may learn it from their parents, and what you can do about it.
The world is full of scary things: The darkness, closets, thunderstorms, monsters, doctors and dentists, teachers yelling, tests, not being liked by others, making mistakes, saying the wrong things, sleeping alone, being away from the parents and family… The list is long, and these are only a few examples of fears that kids and their parents commonly report when they present in private practice.
What is Anxiety:
Anxiety is a normal physiological response to a perceived threat. Normal means that everyone has it. EVERYONE. Anxiety is the fight or flight response that sets in whenever we think we’re not alone in the dark, think we’ve lost our wallet, are put on the spot and unsure about the answer, need to give an unprepared talk in front of an audience, or perform on stage without much practise. Sure, a few people may not find these situations challenging – but most people do.
Interestingly, we are hardwired to respond with a racing heart, increased breathing, and shaky legs or hands when we encounter danger. Once upon a time this is what kept us safe – the ability to run away or fight for our lives without thinking about it. Back when we were somewhere in the middle of the food chain. The world has changed though, and we are now an apex predator – with the physiology of a prey animal. And this is what gets in the way nowadays – responding to non-threats as if they were real ones.
When people talk about anxiety – they mean the anxiety that is debilitating – stopping you from giving that speech, pitching in at work, going out on that date, or telling your friends off. So, the excess anxiety is what we don’t want. Yes, we do want to stay safe and be able to respond when it is a matter of life and death – when there is a fire, when your kid runs out onto the street, when that truck rolls at you without breaks on. But we don’t want the anxiety in our everyday lives – not at work, not at home, not in our social life.
What does anxiety look like in children?
Kids don’t recognise that they have anxiety. They won’t tell you that they are scared – they might if they have the insight, understanding, and learnt or observed it in others. No. It’ s more likely for you to observe your child runnig away, hiding, crying, avoiding the feared object, or becoming aggressive and fighting it. Some children somatise – meaning that they complain about headaches, belly aches or other physical pain in anticipation of the perceived threat.
Anxiety can also show in a more cognitive way – your child might worry a lot, ask a lot of questions, check in with you. Some children need to be close to their caregivers to feel safe. They might follow you around. Or look dependent and needy to ensure they have you around. Teenagers might avoid. For instance, by not choosing certain subjects, walking a different way to school, or not going to school at all.
You may recognise your younger self in these (very brief) descriptions. Or, you may now find certain situations anxiety provoking– and that is ok. It is important to recognise though that this anxiety can in fact affect your child – in more than one way.
The first way is biological. Your child has half your genes and may carry the same risk for developing anxiety. Studies have found several genes making people more vulnerable towards developing anxiety disorders.
Your child may also share your temperament. This means that they could generally be more cautious and anxious, less sociable and more reactive to certain events or triggers than other people. Children with this temperament may be observing a group first before entering it, waiting for others to jump into the pool to make sure it is safe and be more sensitive to criticism than someone with a more stable, calm, optimistic and sociable temperament.
Another route that your anxiety can affect your child is more behavioural and environmental. Your child can learn that certain things are dangerous from observing your response and behaviour. For instance, a parent may stop their child from climbing up the ladder to try the slides in the playground because of their own fear of heights – and their concern that their child may be scared. By stopping your child in exploring it may learn that trying out new things is dangerous, or that heights are dangerous. Keep in mind that children are also hardwired to read anxiety in their parents – again, it’s what kept us safe thousands of years ago.
So, what can you do to help your child develop into a healthy and happy adolescent and health and happy adult?
One important point to remember is that a supportive environment can help even anxious and shy kids to develop into healthy children and adolescents. Understanding your child’s temperament and responding to your child’ s needs while still holding high expectations as to your child’s performance is the best approach you can take. Also, do not stop your child from entering situations that you may fear – remember that your child may have a different temperament and not actually fear social situations but enjoy them.
In the end, it is important to remember that help is available – while everyone feels anxiety, some people appraise it a s a challenge, others as excitement, and only some feel intimidated by it. If the latter is true for you, then give yourself and your family the time to see a psychologist. Together we can address those fears and make sure that you live the life that you want to live. And that your children live the life that they are dreaming of at night.
The Psych Professionals have Psychologists who have a special interest in supporting children, adolescents and their families to cope with anxiety. Contact us now to find out how we can help your child and support them into living a happier and healthier life.