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Childhood anxiety can worsen as children grow. Left untreated anxiety can impact both physical and emotional health. Here’s how to help your child manage anxiety on their own.
Fathers bravely patrolling the perimeter of bedrooms (trusty flashlight in hand) to show a frightened child there aren’t any multi-legged, hairy creatures hiding under their bed is a nighttime ritual regularly performed in homes around the world. But when spider anxiety prevents you from sleeping away from home or traveling, that’s a problem. It’s not the spider that stops you from doing adventurous things; it’s you—and your anxiety—that stops you.
It’s important to know the difference between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder though. Fear of spiders, bugs, birds, monsters, or strangers are considered common childhood fears that may cause temporary anxiety in a child. That’s a normal response. But, regardless of the trigger (spider, dog, going to school, meeting new people), normal anxiety turns toxic when it begins to occupy the child’s thoughts in an all-consuming way and negatively affects the child’s ability to engage in normal activities and behaviors.
Normal Anxiety or Anxiety Disorder? How to Tell the Difference
Every person, child, and adult, is going to feel anxious at some point, says Eli R. Lebowitz, PhD, director of the Program for Anxiety Disorders at the Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine. Anxiety is a normal emotion that has a dual purpose. “It prevents us from doing something dangerous and can motivate us as well,” says Mary K. Alvord, PhD, director of Alvord, Baker & Associates, a psychotherapy practice that specializes in the treatment of children, adolescents and adults with anxiety and other disorders. For example, anxiety might motivate a child to practice the piano for his recital or be the “encouragement” a child needs to do their homework so they can be prepared for class.
What differentiates normal from problematic anxiety is the degree to which the anxiety “interferes with functioning that you would expect for a child of [a particular age] or developmental stage,” says Alvord. Children with anxiety disorders inevitably begin to “avoid situations, things, people, and places that make them anxious,” says Alvord. “Avoidance is the hallmark of anxiety disorders.”
Causes of Childhood Anxiety Disorder
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), “both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the risk of developing an anxiety disorder.” Research shows that biology, biochemistry, life situations, and learned behaviors all play a role. “Many anxious kids have anxious family members,’ says Alvord. “Children model behaviors on what they see,” she adds.Article continues below
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And then there’s the genetic component. Anxiety disorders do run in families but a family history doesn’t mean a child is destined to develop a disorder. “Parental behavior can exacerbate and worsen children’s problem but that’s not the same as saying that parents are the cause of the child having the problem in the first place,” Lebowitz says.
Much depends on the child’s innate sensitivity, family dynamics, and life experiences. “Some children have a natural predisposition or vulnerability to anxiety or have difficulty regulating their feelings of anxiety and fear. And that’s not because their parents did this or didn’t do that,” stresses Lebowitz, “That said, parents can and should play an important role in helping children learn to cope better with their anxiety.”
Reading the Signs: What Anxiety Looks Like in Children
Anxiety disorders reveal themselves in physical and psychological ways. How an anxiety disorder manifests depends on the age of the child and the type of anxiety disorder. Because anxiety can manifest through physical symptoms, it’s important to consult a pediatrician to make sure the behaviors and symptoms are anxiety-related and not due to an underlying medical condition.
Some general symptoms:
- With toddlers and young children, parents may notice increased irritability, excessive crying, tantrums as well as more difficulty self-soothing or self-regulating.
- Young children may exhibit regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting (assuming the child is toilet-trained) or excessive clinginess.
- In all age groups, children with anxiety disorders may exhibit physical symptoms such as stomach and headaches, frequent bathroom urges, rapid breathing, chest pains, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, poor appetite, muscle aches, and tension and sleeping difficulties. Some children have bouts of gagging and choking.