Understanding Childhood Anxiety – When to Relax and When to Get Help
Experiencing anxiety is a normal and expected part of child and adolescent development. As kids and teens grow and face new challenges, they become more aware of new opportunities and also new threats in their world.
Below is a list of some anxieties that children and teens tend to experience at different ages.
As infants grow in their attachment to their parents and learn to discriminate between their parents and others, they develop stranger anxiety (crying and clinging to a parent when exposed to an unfamiliar person). This can begin as early as 6 months and persist through age 2, but typically stranger anxiety peaks between 8 and 18 months depending on your child. Familiar surroundings and introducing a new person slowly with you present can help your child cope with stranger anxiety.
Children ages one through four experience at least some degree of separation anxiety (fear their parents won’t return when separated from them). Children at this age have achieved a close bond with you but do not yet understand time and trust that you will return after a period of separation. Keeping consistent caregivers and familiar surroundings, practicing brief periods of separation with consistently returning to your toddler can be helpful during this phase.
It is typical for children ages 5 to 10 to have fears of natural phenomena, animals, real world dangers, and social situations (thunderstorms, tornadoes, dogs, snakes, burglars, school, and social relationships). At this age, children are learning lots of new information about the world and how it works. Their fears typically subside over time as they learn that just because something could happen doesn’t mean that it is likely to happen. Encouraging your child to talk about his or her fears and listening without teasing or dismissing the fears is a good way to support your child. Supportive listening during this age will also lay the foundation for good communication between your child and you during his or her adolescence.
As middle schoolers and high schoolers try to connect to their peer group and gain confidence in their abilities, their anxieties are typically focused on performance in social, academic, and extracurricular activities; social acceptance; and developing their identities. They are also confronted with peer pressure and making choices about alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and sex. It’s important that you express your beliefs about these topics to your preteen or teen, as they will certainly hear their peers’ opinions, too.Your teen may start to become more private about his or her concerns during this time, preferring to talk to a friend rather than a parent. This is common and a part of developing independence and his or her identity. However, offering a nonjudgmental, listening ear; communicating that it is okay to make mistakes and fail; and teaching them the benefit of working on challenging tasks (ex., a school subject or a sport) can help your pre-teen or teen build confidence and feel comfortable talking with you.
At any age, experiencing an intense or prolonged stressor (a death in the family, divorce, starting a new school, an illness in the family, a disagreement with a best friend, etc.) will likely cause at least some anxiety and emotional distress in your child or teenager. He or she may respond by worrying, crying, experiencing physical pain (ex., headaches or stomach aches), sleeping difficulties, withdrawing, or reverting to younger behaviors (ex., clinging, thumb sucking, bed wetting). When something stressful occurs, make an extra effort to talk with your child or teen and give him or her extra support.
So as a parent, teacher, or other concerned adult, how do you know when to be concerned about your child’s anxieties and fears? As discussed above, certain anxieties are typical and part of development. However, if these anxieties are significantly intense, prolonged, or interfering with your child’s life, I recommend consulting with your pediatrician and/or meeting with a counselor.
Is he or she falling apart each time the anxiety returns?
How much is the anxiety interfering with home life, school, or social activities?
Has the anxiety persisted for longer than four weeks?
If your answer is yes to one or more of these questions, consider consulting with your pediatrician and/or a counselor.
Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent emotional difficulties in children and adults. They are also the most treatable difficulties. If your child or teen is struggling with anxiety, intervening early can help him or her decrease stress and anxiety and avoid social, emotional, physical, and academic consequences, as well as build self-esteem and coping skills.
Kathryn H. Leugers, Psy.D., M.B.A.