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Childhood Anxiety (Is it normal fear or something more?)

Posted Aug 24 2009 10:50am
I'm getting more and more calls from parents who are concerned about their child's anxiety, so I thought I'd post some general information on childhood anxiety.

All humans experience anxiety, it serves as a means of protection and can often enhance our performance in stressful situations. Children who are able to experience the slight rush of anxiety that often occurs prior to a math test or a big track race often can enhance their performance. However, experiencing too much anxiety or general nervousness, at inappropriate times, can be extremely distressing and interfering. Although children have fears of specific objects, the feeling of anxiety is more general…children may feel constantly “keyed up” or extremely alert. Given the wide range of tasks children must accomplish throughout their childhood, it is important to be sure that their level of anxiety does not begin to interfere with their ability to function. If it does, it is important that they begin to learn some skills for coping more efficiently with their anxious feelings.

Children’s fears are often natural, and arise at specific times in their development. Children may develop fears from a traumatic experience (e.g. traumatic dog attack), but for some children, there is no clear event that causes the fear to arise. Some children become fearful simply by watching another child acting scared. Some children may refuse to sleep alone due to fears of creatures in their closet, while other children report feeling afraid of the dark. These fears are often associated with avoidance, discomfort, and physical complaints, such as rapid heart beat, stomach distress, sweaty palms, or trembling.

It is common for certain fears to arise at specific ages in all children, and these fears tend to disappear naturally with time, as the child grows older. When children’s fears persist beyond the age when they are appropriate, and begin to interfere with their daily functioning, they are called phobias. Typically, children who are experiencing a phobia should be referred for treatment.

Some research shows that 90% of children between the ages of 2-14 have at least one specific fear. If your child’s fear is not interfering with her daily life (e.g., sleep, school performance, social activities) , or your family’s life, then most likely you will not need to bring your  child for additional help.

Here are a list of fears that are found to be VERY COMMON for children at specific ages:

    INFANTS/TODDLERS (ages 0-2 years) loud noises, strangers, separation from parents, large objects

    PRESCHOOLERS (3-6 years) imaginary figures (e.g., ghosts, monsters, supernatural beings, the dark, noises, sleeping alone, thunder, floods)

    SCHOOL AGED CHILDREN/ADOLESCENTS (7-16 years) more realistic fears (e.g., physical injury, health, school performance, death, thunderstorms, earthquakes, floods.

How do I know if my child is struggling with an anxiety disorder?

All children experience short-lived fears or anxiety at times, but kids with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) experience extreme, unrealistic worry that interferes with their daily lives. Typical signs of this Generalized Anxiety Disorder are: excessive worrying about ordinary activities, such as attending school, forming friendships, separating from parents, or taking tests. Children with GAD are overly tense, self-conscious and may require a lot of reassurance. They may complain of frequent stomachaches and headaches, and experience sweating, trembling, and palpitations.

If your child is experiencing fears which interfere with their daily life, contact a therapist or your pediatrician.

What can I do at home to help my child?

Try to remain calm and understanding when interacting with your child. If parents become anxious, angry or consistently let frustrations show, it won't help. Work with treatment providers in following through with behavior plans at home.

Progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery can have a calming effect and help children learn to reduce their anxiety and manage stress.

Should I involve the school in my child's treatment?

Since school is such a big part of children's lives, difficulties like this often manifest themselves in the school setting. If anxiety is affecting school performance, it is important to inform key officials of the treatment process and incorporate treatment recommendations into the school setting. It may be helpful for child, parents, teachers and therapists to meet.


*information obtained from www.apa.org and www.mentalhealth.org
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