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:
- Babies experience stranger anxiety, clinging to parents when confronted by people they don’t recognize. They will also be startled by loud noises and have a fear response to falling.
- Toddlers may experience separation anxiety, becoming emotionally distressed when one or both parents leave; fear of strangers or new things.
- Kids ages 4 through 6 may also have anxiety about separating from their caregiver or being around strangers; they may also be afraid of animals, blood, heights, dark places or things that aren’t based in reality, such as fears of monsters and ghosts.
- Kids ages 7 through 12 often have fears that reflect real circumstances that may happen to them or their loved ones, such as bodily injuries, death and events in the news such as terrorist attacks or virus pandemics. Adolescents may also have a healthy dose of sexual and social anxieties.
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:
- Becoming clingy, impulsive or easily distracted
- Avoidance or withdrawal
- Nervous movements or twitching
- Problems getting sleep and/or staying asleep
- Sweaty hands or body parts
- Accelerated heart rate or breathing
- Nausea, headaches or stomach aches
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:
- If your child’s fear is related to a developmental stage or age of your child, there is a strong probability their anxiety or fear will resolve before it becomes a concern. However, if they continue to experience trouble getting past the anxiety or fear with support, intervention may have to be more extensive.
- Try to identify the specific symptoms your child is experiencing and how/if it is affecting your child’s personal, social, or academic functioning. If anxiety is a response to your child’s everyday activities (e.g., sports, school, extracurricular) adjustments can be made to alleviate some stress they are experiencing.
- If your child’s fear seems disproportionate to the event/s or situation, this may be a sign to seek outside help from a professional. Also take note of any patterns of anxiety that are persistent and pervasive and take action, or the anxiety is likely to continue to affect your child.
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.