A little anxiety is a good thing. We want our children to feel danger when they cross the street or talk to a stranger, or study harder during exam week because they could fail.
However, some kids get tooanxious over everything. Their emotional smoke alarms are set really low, so they see danger or even look for it in non-threatening situations. According to last year's study by Anxiety and Depression Association of America, in the United States alone, one of eight children are troubled by anxiety.
A study by the University of California showed children pictures of someone screaming next to something safe or even friendly (like a smiling puppy or a chocolate cake). Most kids relaxed when they saw there was “nothing to be afraid of.” Anxious kids focused on the screaming face, sometimes ignoring the positive image altogether. Their brains were wired to find fear.
The University of California study also found anxious children also make less eye contact with people. The danger here is they miss out on reassuring social cues that tell them, “Calm down, you’ll be okay, go ahead and take a risk.”
Psychiatrist Dr. Carl Shwartz said this can affect their decisions and experiences when they grow up. “These are the kids who are afraid to raise their hands in class or date in high school.”
Some studies indicate that as many as 1 in 5 children have some form of anxiety disorder. The problem is it’s so hard to diagnose or treat. Sometimes obvious behavior patterns—tantrums, loss of appetite, bad grades—will get parents’ attention. But anxious children are often very quiet and well-behaved in class. Since they also feel failure or disappointing others, many of them are overachievers. They seem a little shy, but they get such good grades and never get into trouble that nobody senses their constant inner stress. Anxiety in kids has become known as the “hidden” mental epidemic.
What causes childhood anxiety? Some psychologists believe that some children are just born with an anxious personality. One study that followed people from infancy to early adulthood found that babies who were fussy and really sensitive to stimuli (changes in light, temperature, sound, or touch) had higher stress levels as adults.
Anxiety can also be created by a stressful home environment, too much pressure from overscheduling or unrealistic expectations, or a crisis like parents’ separation or a death in the family. “Sometimes, inborn anxiety can be heightened by what they call “goodness/badness of fit” between child-parent personalities,” says psychologist and guidance counselor Stella Formosa. “An intuitive parent will quickly pick up on a child’s hidden clues. A more logical parent will miss it, or become impatient with irrational fears: 'Why are you being so maarte?’”
Formosa says gender biases play a role, too. “Anxious boys are also taught to suppress or hide their fears (because they have to 'man up') while anxious girls may be overindulged and overprotected.” Neither of them learns constructive, helpful ways of dealing with their emotions.
Anxiety can hold your child back Formosa says that anxiety interferes with your child's relationships and willingness to take risks. “They may have a hard time making friends or avoid situations where they can fail. You may not see it in your child’s report card because you can get good grades just by studying hard, but when he’s working he’ll need social skills, risk-taking and resiliency to succeed. Anxious adults will never speak up or take chances, and their everyday stress levels are already high that a little pressure at work can feel like a crisis.”
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“The problem with anxiety, both in children and adults, is that the emotion is usually a lot more difficult than the actual problem.”
Help your anxious child Formosa says if your child seems over-cautious, shy, or has a high tendency to worry, you can focus on teaching positive stress coping mechanisms.
“You can’t tell him to ‘not worry’ because he still will. But just like going to the gym will help you lift stronger weights without getting tired, he can learn to face increasingly uncomfortable situations without panicking.”
For example, if he withdraws in large groups, enroll him in small enrichment classes where can have fun with other people without being forced to interact with them one-on-one right away. Then move on to playgroups (where he learns how to make friends), and then larger group activities like volunteering for a Church or community activity.
Phobias can also be conquered little by little: a child who is afraid of dogs can start by looking at dogs from a safe distance, then approaching them at a pet store, then playing with a friendly puppy.
“These experiences give him emotional armor. Next time he’s afraid you can say, ‘But remember, before you were scared of this, and now it’s not so bad.’”
Formosa says it’s also important to encourage him to talk about what he feels. “The problem with anxiety, both in children and adults, is that the emotion is usually a lot more difficult than the actual problem,” she says. “Unspoken fears are hard to fight. When you express something—like ‘I’m worried about _______’ and ‘I think if I do this, that will happen’—you can now think of solutions.”
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Formosa also uses a technique she calls the Emotional Math. “As long as you think of more positive benefits or blessings than negative fears, you will be okay.” She challenges her patients to think of three empowering or happy things for every fear they face.
Nobody should lead a life defined or limited by their fears, she says. “As a parent, you’re in a powerful position to teach kids how to be brave.”