What parent enjoys seeing their child being worried, nervous, or fearful about the world around them? Childhood anxiety is one the most common concerns raised by parents when they bring their child in for therapy. Anxiety can cause your child to lose interest in things they most enjoy, underperform in school, and avoid friends, family, and life experiences. Anxiety can consume your child’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and can result in significant life impairments if left untreated.
The interesting thing about anxiety is that it starts off as a good thing but, in some cases, becomes a real concern. Anxiety is the brain’s natural response to danger. It is a human reaction that helps the individual avoid something that threatens his or her safety or well-being. We are quite thankful for anxiety if we suddenly find ourselves facing a rabid dog. Anxiety activates our fight-or-flight system which prepares our mind and body to respond to a potentially dangerous situation. Anxiety becomes problematic when the experience of anxiety is frequent, severe, or intense, and it interferes with being able to do everyday tasks.
Determining whether your child’s anxiety is problematic can be particularly difficult. Children experience many anxieties as part of typical human development. Children between the ages of 10 to 18 months often experience anxiety when separated from their parents. Children 3 to 4 years of age often experience fear of the dark and by 4 to 6 years of age that fear migrates into a fear of ghosts or monsters. Between 7 and 12 years of age children often experience fears of personal injury and between the ages of 12 to 18 children develop anxieties related to social or performance situations. In all of these situations, anxiety can be beneficial in that it either keeps parents close for protection, increases abilities for assessing the unknown, or enhances alertness or motivation. This makes it complicated to discern whether your child’s anxiety is part of normal development or if it is problematic. An additional challenge is that children with an anxiety disorder may exhibit fears or worries but they may not know how to express their anxiety-related problems to their parents. When the child does not express distress from anxiety some parents may presume that their child’s anxiety is normal or manageable when, in fact, the anxiety is actually problematic.
Research into childhood anxieties suggests that 10-20% of children suffer from an anxiety disorder, but many more suffer from symptoms that do not meet criteria for a diagnosable disorder. 40% of grade school children struggle with fears of separation from a parent. 40% of children 6 to 12 years of age have 7 or more fears that they find troubling. 30% of grade school children worry about their personal abilities or skills and require considerable reassurance. 20% of grade school children are fearful of heights, shy in new situations, or anxious about public speaking and social acceptance. Research also suggests that girls report more anxious stress than boys.
This three-part mini-blog series continues. Part 2 describes the common categories of childhood anxiety. Part 3 highlights the typical symptoms of childhood anxiety and the questions parents should ask to determine if their child may need professional assistance.
Dr. Stephen Rochefort is a registered psychologist in the province of Alberta. For more information on this or any other forensic or clinical psychology topic, contact Dr. Stephen by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (604.554.0469).