Anxiety and Fears

Anxiety is a normal part of children’s development. Almost all children feel shy or fearful around strangers. But about one in 10 children experience anxiety more intensely and more often than other children. This stops them from getting the most out of life.

Anxiety: ages and stages

In most cases, fears in childhood are fairly transient and short-lived. Different anxieties develop at different stages:

  • Babies and toddlers might fear loud noises, heights, strangers and separation.
  • Preschoolers might start to show fears of being on their own and of the dark.
  • School-age children might be afraid of supernatural things (like ghosts), social situations, failure, criticism or tests, and physical harm or threat.

Children also worry about different things as they get older. In childhood, they might worry about getting sick or hurt. In older childhood and adolescence, the focus becomes less concrete – for example, war, economic and political fears, family relationships and so on.

What causes anxiety?

Some people are more likely to be anxious because it runs in the family (just like eye colour). People can also learn to think and behave in an anxious way by watching others or by going through scary experiences. Certain things in a child’s environment might also increase the child’s chances of becoming anxious. For example, if a parent is overprotective of a child who is shy, it might help the child in the short term, but it can actually increase the child’s anxiety overall.

Ways to support your child

If your child displays signs of anxiety, you can support them in several ways:

  • Acknowledge your child’s fear – don’t dismiss or ignore it.
  • Gently encourage your child to do the things that they are anxious about, but don’t push them to face situations they doesn’t want to face.
  • Wait until your child actually gets anxious before you step in to help them.
  • Praise your child for doing something they’re anxious about, rather than criticising them for being afraid.
  • Avoid labelling your child as ‘shy’ or ‘anxious’.

Types of child anxiety

Children experience several types of anxiety. A child might have only one type of anxiety, or they might show features of several of them.
Worry and fear are different forms of anxiety. Worry usually occurs when a child thinks about past or future situations. Fear usually occurs in the present. For instance, a child might be fearful when a dog approaches them in the park. The same child might also worry about visiting a friend with a pet dog.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Children can develop an attachment to a caregiver so strong that they experience intense anxiety and panic upon separation. This anxiety is so strong that it interferes with the child’s ability to function normally, and can develop into a flat refusal to go to school for fear of permanent separation. Some of the more common symptoms that can occur are:

  • Constant thoughts and fears about safety of self and/or parent
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Frequent stomach aches and other physical complaints
  • Extreme worries about sleeping away from home
  • Overly clingy behaviour at home
  • Panic or tantrums at times of separation from parents

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalised anxiety disorder is marked by unrealistic and excessive worry, accompanied by constant and often unnecessary concern about anything or everything. These children worry about many different areas of their life including school work, competition, family, and anything new. They often ask repeatedly for reassurance and may experience physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, or diarrhoea.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

As with adults, OCD in children and adolescents is mainly characterised by intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and behaviours (compulsions). Individuals with OCD are besieged by patterns of unwanted, repetitive thoughts and repetitious behaviours that are distressing and difficult to ignore or overcome completely.

Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is fear and worry in situations where children have to interact with other people, or be the focus of attention. Children with social anxiety typically:

  • believe that others will think badly of or laugh at them
  • are shy or withdrawn
  • have difficulty meeting children or joining in groups
  • have a limited number of friends
  • avoid social situations where they might be the focus of attention or stand out from others – for example, talking on the telephone and asking or answering questions in class.

When to be concerned

Most children have fears or worries of some kind. If you’re concerned about your child, the following tips might help you decide whether you need to seek professional help.

  • Ask yourself the following question: Is my child’s anxiety stopping them from doing things they want to do? Is it interfering with their friendships, schoolwork or family life? If the answer is ‘yes’, consider seeking professional help.
  • Compare your child’s behaviour with other children of the same age. For example, it’s common for most children to experience separation fears when going to preschool or school for the first time, but far less common over the age of eight. If your child’s behaviour is very different from that of other children, consider professional help.
  • Consider how severe your child’s reaction is. If they are extremely distressed and hard to settle when you leave them, for example, think seriously about professional help.

Severe anxiety can impact on children’s health and happiness. Some anxious children will grow out of their fears. Others will continue to have trouble with anxiety unless they receive professional help.

Source: Raising Children Network: The Australian Parenting Website

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