A striking thing is happening with my toddler: she is becoming a little person with her own personality, opinions, likes, and dislikes. She is funny, sweet, thoughtful, strong-willed, and easily makes friends. But she is also starting to develop fears. Previously she was afraid of nothing and easily navigated new situations. She had no fear of heights, people, or animals and breezed easily through life. Now she clings to me and becomes so afraid of slides at the playground that she holds to the top rails for dear life. She becomes shy around new people and has difficulty even saying hello. She has gone from fearless to frightened in the span of a few weeks.
This is entirely developmentally appropriate and all kids go through phases where they are afraid of various things--strangers, the dark, etc. But when I see this, I think of the many kids with anxiety disorders who I have worked with and how the child in them seems to have disappeared under the weight of anxiety and fear. And I gather my internal resources to try to prevent that from happening with my little girl.
Obviously not every child will develop an anxiety disorder and the presence of anxiety and fear in children is perfectly normal. In fact, most children will not develop an anxiety disorder and for most children the anxiety and fear that is experienced is developmentally appropriate and changes as the child grows. But for a subgroup of children, these fears do develop into anxiety that intereferes in their lives or causes them extreme distress. These children have developed an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders result from a combination of inborn
personality traits, stressors, genetics, and familial response to the child's emotions. Despite the contribution of things that we cannot control, like genes, there are things that parents can do the prevent their child from developing an anxiety disorder. Although this is important for all kids, it may especially be important for children at risk for developing anxiety disorders due to family history of anxiety or the child being easily overwhelmed by new situations and/or their emotions. So how can we prevent our kids from developing anxiety disorders?
1) Facing the fears. As parents we generally want to protect our child from experiencing anxiety and distress. Although this is a perfectly healthy response, it can lead parents to encourage the child to avoid frightening situations. In the short run, avoidance can prevent a child from experiencing anxiety--if the child doesn't go into the situation, the child won't be anxious. If my daughter doesn't go down the slide or separate from me, she won't have to experience the distress of anxiety. But, over the long-term avoidance maintains anxiety. Children can't avoid anxiety-provoking situations forever. My daughter will have to separate from me and although she doesn't have to go down the slide, I think that she would actually enjoy it if she could get over the fear.
So how do you help a child to get over a fear? If a child is exposed to an anxiety-provoking situation and stays in the situation, the child's anxiety reduces naturally. It is a physiological system that is built in to the body becuase the body, heart, lungs, etc are not built to maintain a state of constant arousal. So if a child stays in the anxiety-provoking situation, this calming system naturally kicks in and the anxiety goes down. This breaks the link between the situation and the anxiety and teaches a child that the child can handle anxiety.
2) Modeling brave behavior. Many adults avoid anxiety-provoking situations. If you are afraid of something, you generally avoid it. But children do what their parents do. If a child sees a parent avoiding an anxiety-provoking situation, the child will avoid anxiety-provoking situations as well. If you want your child to face their fears, you have to show them that you face yours as well.
3) Handle your own anxiety. As parents, it tugs at our heart strings when we see our child experiencing anxiety or sadness. But sometimes that can lead us to allow the child to avoid an anxiety-provoking situation or can cause us to exacerbate our child's anxiety. Kids look to their parents to figure out how to respond in a situation. If a parent is obviously anxious, the child will become anxious. If a parent seems calm, this will help the child to calm down. One of the key ways that a parent can help a child to reduce their anxiety is by managing the parent's own anxiety. Keep a calm tone of voice when talking to your child. Talk slowly. Speaking quickly often comes with being anxious. Maintain a calm expression on your face. This will show your child that you are not afraid in the situation, which will help to reduce your child's anxiety.
4) Validate the emotion but don't exacerbate it. Many times a parent will say "You're not scared," to their child. The goal is to reduce the child's anxiety but often what it does is invalidate what the child is feeling. If you were about to do something anxiety-provoking and someone told you what you were feeling, it would not be helpful. In fact, it might be frustrating. For a child, it conveys to the child that the child does not know what they are feeling and can also make the child feel that the parent does not understand. Instead, validate the child's experience but also encourage the child to remain in the situation. "Are you scared?" If the child says yes, then say "Okay, well it's okay to be scared. We all get scared sometimes. But, when we get scared we have to be brave and face the situation. Otherwise the fear ends up bossing us around and we don't get to do things that we want to do. Let's try to be brave together." This provides your child with a way to convey what they are feeling and allows you to join the child in being brave against the fear.
5) Seek help if necessary. If your child's anxiety is interfereing in his or her life or causing your child a lot of distress, that is the point where it makes sense to have your child evaluated by a psychologist. A psychologist will meet with you and your child and determine whether your child's anxiety and fear has become problematic. A good way to find a local therapist is to use the "find help" tool at one of the following sites:
As a parent, I know how tough it can be to see your child struggling with fears and anxiety. It breaks my heart to feel my baby girl clinging to me and to know that she is afraid. And though she is pint-sized, I know that now is the time to teach her that she is brave and that she is in charge of her life--not anxiety. That is exactly what therapy for anxiety can teach a child with an anxiety disorder and through that process the fun-loving kid returns and the anxiety shrinks to something that the child can manage. There is nothing better than seeing the anxious kid who looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders becoming a kid again.