Anxiety, fears and phobias are terms that are relevant and familiar to people of all ages. As adults we views these feelings negatively, but as kids we need to view them as normal and necessary even though they are uncomfortable and typically don’t feel very great. The reason for this to be viewed in a positive light with kids is the fact that it will prepare them to handle the unsettling experiences and challenging situations that are part of life.
Fears and anxieties are a normal part of being human. Anxiety is defined as “apprehension without apparent cause.” It usually occurs when there’s no immediate threat to a person’s safety or well-being, but the threat feels real. We all know that feeling of our hearts beating, stomach starts to knot up and perspiration begins, anxiety is uncomfortable, but it is also a tendency that keeps people alert and focused.
The feeling of anxiety in kids is new and unfamiliar, but it helps them learn and react safely in dangerous situations. For example, a kid with a fear of fire would avoid playing with matches.
The nature of anxieties and fears change as kids grow and develop:
- Babies experience stranger anxiety, clinging to parents when confronted by people they don’t recognize.
- Toddlers around 10 to 18 months old experience separation anxiety, becoming emotionally distressed when one or both parents leave.
- Kids ages 4 through 6 have anxiety about 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, such as bodily injury and natural disaster.
Signs of Anxiety
Typical childhood fears change with age. They include fear of strangers, heights, darkness, animals, blood, insects, and being left alone. Kids often learn to fear a specific object or situation after having an unpleasant experience, such as a dog bite or an accident.
Separation anxiety is common when young children are starting school, whereas adolescents may experience anxiety related to social acceptance and academic achievement. If anxious feelings persist, they can take a toll on a child’s sense of well-being. The anxiety associated with social avoidance can have long-term effects. For example, a child with fear of being rejected can fail to learn important social skills, causing social isolation.
Many adults are tormented by fears that stem from childhood experiences. An adult’s fear of public speaking may be the result of embarrassment in front of peers many years before. It’s important for parents to recognize and identify the signs and symptoms of kids’ anxieties so that fears don’t get in the way of everyday life.
Some signs that a child may be anxious about something may include:
- Becoming clingy, impulsive, or distracted
- Nervous movements, such as temporary twitches
- Problems getting to sleep and/or staying asleep longer than usual
- Sweaty hands
- Accelerated heart rate and breathing
In addition to these signs, parents tend to have an excellent sense of knowing when their child is uneasy about something. They also know the best ways their children cope with stress and fears, so it is important to take the time to listen and talk about the fears, which could easily diminish the problem.
What’s a Phobia?
When anxieties and fears persist, problems can arise. As much as a parent hopes the child will grow out of it, sometimes the opposite occurs, and the cause of the anxiety looms larger and becomes more prevalent. The anxiety becomes a phobia, or a fear that’s extreme, severe, and persistent.
A phobia can be very difficult to tolerate, both for kids and those around them, especially if the anxiety-producing stimulus (whatever is causing the anxiety) is hard to avoid (e.g., thunderstorms). “Real” phobias are one of the top reasons kids are referred to mental health professionals. But the good news is that unless the phobia hinders the everyday ability to function, the child sometimes won’t need treatment by a professional because, in time, the phobia will be resolved.
Helping Your Child
Parents can help kids develop the skills and confidence to overcome fears so that they don’t evolve into phobic reactions. To help your child deal with fears and anxieties:
- Recognize that the fear is real. As trivial as a fear may seem, it feels real to your child and it’s causing him or her to feel anxious and afraid. Being able to talk about fears helps — words often take some of the power out of the negative feeling. If you talk about it, it can become less powerful.
- Never belittle the fear as a way of forcing your child to overcome it. Saying, “Don’t be ridiculous! There are no monsters in your closet!” may get your child to go to bed, but it won’t make the fear go away.
- Don’t cater to fears, though. If your child doesn’t like dogs, don’t cross the street deliberately to avoid one. This will just reinforce that dogs should be feared and avoided. Provide support and gentle care as you approach the feared object or situation with your child.
- Teach kids how to rate fear. A child who can visualize the intensity of the fear on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the strongest, may be able to “see” the fear as less intense than first imagined. Younger kids can think about how “full of fear” they are, with being full “up to my knees” as not so scared, “up to my stomach” as more frightened, and “up to my head” as truly petrified.
- Teach coping strategies. Try these easy-to-implement techniques. Using you as “home base,” the child can venture out toward the feared object, and then return to you for safety before venturing out again. The child can also learn some positive self-statements, such as “I can do this” and “I will be OK” to say to himself or herself when feeling anxious. Relaxation techniques are helpful, including visualization (of floating on a cloud or lying on a beach, for example) and deep breathing (imagining that the lungs are balloons and letting them slowly deflate).
The key to resolving fears and anxieties is to overcome them. Using these suggestions, you can help your child better cope with life’s situations. As your kids grow up remember fear and anxiety are a natural part of life, and those uncomfortable situations are what create and mold us into who we are in the future. Having the ability to handle less than desirable social situations is a great skill to have. Taking the time to talk with your kids about their fears can help them cope and even conquer the fears without additional help, so always take the time to genuinely listen to what is causing the fears.