Through my work with families I have found that anxiety can be a scary thing for parents to watch their children experience. Parents often report feeling helpless when an anxious child is hard to console and frustrated when the anxiety seems to get worse with time. There are different types of anxiety such as generalized, separation, social, and specific phobias but, in general, there are two main parts to understanding the experience of anxiety.
The first part is sensing a dangerous situation. Anxiety and fear are closely related. We, as humans, are set up to fight for survival. Both anxiety and fear allow us to sense and prepare for danger but anxiety tricks the mind and the body to believe there is external danger when there is not. It is often confusing to parents on why their children become so anxious when they live in a safe community, attend a safe school, and live in a safe home but anxiety is the child’s perception that there is danger of some sort. This danger is created internally through thinking patterns such as predicting the worst outcome of a given situation. At this point, anxiety is telling the child’s mind and body “You are not safe!” (McKay & Dinkmeyer, 2002; Rasmussen & Dover, 2006).
The second part of anxiety is feeling as if the dangerous situation is unmanageable. We face difficult situations throughout our lives but if we feel like we are not capable of handling them then the situation becomes overwhelming and frightening. We can begin to feel incapable of handling the challenges that life presents for numerous reasons. Some children begin to feel this way as they start to get older and are asked by parents and teachers to take on more responsibility. It is much easier to remain a child. Some children also become anxious when they are faced with the realities of life including the loss of a close relationship or a major life transition. Whatever the reason, this intense message they are feeling of being unsafe along with the belief that they cannot manage often leads to avoidance of whatever is causing the anxiety (McKay & Dinkmeyer, 2002).
Anxiety is goal-oriented and small doses of it can be motivating. When we feel a little anxious about an upcoming test we put studying as a priority. In this situation, the goal is to study to pass the test. However, if we were to believe that we were going to fail the test, even if we study all night, and that by failing the test we will not be able to pass the class, and if we can’t pass the class we wont be able to graduate, then we have created a “dangerous” situation and our goal is now to protect ourselves. We protect ourselves by avoiding the situation and telling the world “I can’t!” through our symptoms such as panic attacks, crying, hyperventilating, stalling, or refusing school. This creates a reaction in the people surrounding the child and often leads to parents desperately trying to resolve the child’s conflict. This might include accommodations such as letting your child stay home from school or letting your child take refuge in your bed at night. This response can be useful in the short-term. However, as we respond to a child’s anxiety in this way, we are confirming for the child that they are unable to meet the challenges they are facing and, as we avoid situations that make us anxious we actually become more anxious (Rasmussen & Dover, 2006).
So then what do we do? The first thing to remember is that your child is truly afraid in an anxious moment, even if it seems like the child has no reason to be afraid. Remember, it is perceived fear. We can then begin by doing our best to remain calm and patient when a child is anxious, remind children that they can manage the situation they are struggling with, and help children move forward instead of avoiding what’s scary. For further information on anxiety and coping skills for children and teens, anxietybc.com and the free app Mindshift are great resources. If your child’s anxiety has gotten to the point where it is greatly impacting his or her life then it is beneficial to seek help from a professional.
McKay, G & Dinkmeyer, D. (2002). How you feel is up to you: The power of emotional choice (2nd ed.). Atascadero, California: Impact Publisher’s, Inc.
Rasmussen, P. R. & Dover, G. J. (2006). The purposefulness of anxiety and depression: Adlerian and evolutionary views. The Journal of Individual Psychology, 62 (4).
- Erica Schulz, Psy.D., CADC, NCC Ext. 334