Fear and anxiety in childhood is commonplace. It’s almost a rite of passage. The list of things children are afraid of can include the dark, dogs, being laughed at by classmates, talking to strangers and so on. As children get older and have a better understanding of the world, more complex issues can cause fear such as death or burglary and may be influenced by real-life events or experiences seen on the news. Suffering from slight fear is a normal part of life, but some adolescents experience more than the average developmental anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 31% of adolescents report feeling anxiety or have other anxiety disorders (Any).
Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric disorder in children (Piacentini et al, 2002). Children with anxiety experience excessive worry or fears, which can lead to impaired functioning. These impairments often inhibit the child during school, social and family interactions (Piacentini et al, 2002). Studies have shown that children who are born to anxious parents are more likely to be anxious themselves, though it is unclear how much nature or nurture plays a role (Piacentini et al, 2002).
Sometimes adults may view the stressors that causes an anxiety attack as inconsequential, but just because they are not bothered by the trigger-stressor does not mean that the child’s anxiety is any less real. This misunderstanding can make it difficult for parents, teachers and caregivers to help children manage their anxiety. The best solution to this problem is educating the adults on things that can be done to eliminate or at least reduce anxiety in children.
It has been shown that parenting styles can influence the development of childhood anxiety (Majdandžić et al 2017). Parents who are over protective or over controlling can foster anxiety disorders in their children (Majdandžić et al, 2017). Mirjana Majdandžić, a faculty member at the Universiteit Van Amsterdam, and her research team identified “challenging parenting behavior” as a potential shield against childhood anxiety (2017). Challenging parenting behavior is a style of parenting that encourages parents, especially the fathers, to persuade their children to take risks, practice social exertion and confidently explore unfamiliar situations (Majdandžić et al, 2017). Modeling challenging behavior is also important to allow the children to see how to take risks and solve problems (Majdandžić et al, 2017).
Dr. Clark Goldstein, a child and adolescent psychologist, offers some suggestions on how to help a child with anxiety. He says that trying to avoid the stressor and protecting a child from the fear actually exacerbates the fear, rather than helping (Goldstein). The goal should not be to take away the anxiety but to teach a child how to manage the anxiety. Children need to learn how to function despite their anxiety. Goldstein advises parents and caregivers to not avoid things that make the child anxious (Goldstein). He cautions about removing a stressor or the child if the child begins to cry, as that teaches the child unhelpful coping mechanisms.
Goldstein also suggests respecting the child’s feelings without empowering the fear. The desired message should be that it is okay to be afraid, but the child isn’t alone. Helping the child think through the fear or stressor is often helpful. Help the child see what could happen and ask the child what they should do to overcome their fear (Goldstein). Other suggestions include making sure adult body language and tone of voice don’t reinforce the fear, encouraging the child to tolerate the fear and keeping the time the child is exposured to the stressor short (Goldstein.)
The children needs to develop self-efficacy. Melinda Beck defines self-efficacy in the Wall Street Journal as the “unshakable belief that some people have that they have what it takes to succeed” (Beck, 2008). It is a judgment of ability, not of self-worth. Self-efficacy can be developed. It is important for parents, teachers and caregivers to provide children with opportunities to take risks in a safe environment where the children are likely to succeed. This will give the children something to lean on when facing stressors in the future. Children need to know they have the power to do hard things. It’s up to adults to let them do it.
Any mental disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml
Beck, M. (2008, Apr). If at first you don’t succeed, you’re in excellent company – ProQuest. Wall Street Journal Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.byui.idm.oclc.org/docview/399029111?accountid=9817
Goldstein, C. What to do (and not do) When Children Are Anxious. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/article/what-to-do-and-not-do-when-children-are-anxious/
Majdandžić, M., Lazarua, R., Oort, F. J., Sluis, C. v. d., Dodd, H. F., Morris, T. M., . . . Bögels, S. M. (2017). The structure of challenging parenting behavior and associations with anxiety in Dutch and Australian children. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, , 1-14. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15374416.2017.1381915
Piacentini, J., & Roblek, T. (2002). Recognizing and treating childhood anxiety disorders: These disorders are treatable but often are neglected by practitioners. The Western Journal of Medicine, 176(3), 149-151. doi:10.1136/ewjm.176.3.149