Childhood Fear and Anxiety:  What is Normal and When We Should Take Action

By Andrea Holmes, Director of Strategic Growth and Programs

Parents often wonder if their children’s fears and anxieties are a normal part of development. Much like adults, children experience a variety of emotions, albeit uncomfortable at times, which allow them to navigate their world in a meaningful way.  Childhood itself can be an anxious experience. Young people are tasked with learning many new skills, meeting everyday challenges, overcoming fears, all while interacting in a world that is ever-changing and that doesn’t always make sense. However, healthy fears and anxieties serve as a temperature gauge to maneuver through situations that may be dangerous or require them to slow down and assess whether to engage or seek out help. Most importantly dealing with anxiety and fear are necessary in preparing young people to handle life’s experiences and challenges that come their way.

Whether healthy or unhealthy, child development happens quickly and varies from child to child, so distinguishing normal emotions from those that require special attention may require caregivers to slow down and take note.

Normal Fear and Anxiety:

Most childhood fears are a normative part of development, temporary or eventually outgrown, but research has shown that anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric diagnosis in childhood. Approximately one in eight children have an anxiety disorder, but the majority of the children who qualify for a diagnosis are not getting the treatment they need. Not treating anxiety leaves children at risk of decreasing performance in school, poor social skills, poor emotional regulation skills, and the use of negative coping strategies (e.g. substances). Anxiety diagnosis in adulthood can be traced back to underpinnings of anxiety in childhood. Therefore, prevention and intervention around signs of childhood anxiety is important.

Sometimes kids’ fears or stressors prove too much to handle and can take a toll on a child’s sense of well-being. If the comfort, support and reassurance from a healthy parent to mitigate these everyday stressors is not enough, it may be time to take action. As much as caregivers hope a child will grow out of it, the anxiety becomes greater, more prevalent and the opposite may occur without proper help. But the good news is that unless the anxiety hinders the young persons everyday ability to function, the child most likely won’t need extensive treatment by a mental health professional.

Warning Signs of Abnormal Fear and Anxiety:

Parents know their children best and can usually tell when a child is feeling excessively stressed, anxious, or uneasy about something. Simply being there for your child and allowing them to feel what they feel in the moment, without judgment, can be a healthy way for a child to feel comforted and move towards emotional regulation and safety.

Important Factors to Keep in Mind:

Fear and anxiety are inevitable, but parents often feel helpless when they see their children experiencing intense fear or worry. If you have any questions or concerns as to whether your child’s fear and anxiety is normal, seek out advice from a mental health professional.

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