Is it normal childhood fear or something more?
Marie* was afraid of many things. Being away from her parents, going to school, sleeping by herself, failing a test, or answering a question in class. Some would call her a shy, nervous child, which could be a part of it, but Marie’s ‘shyness’ was limiting her daily life, making it a constant challenge for her parents. She would take hours to fall asleep because of ‘too many scary thoughts’; she would have a stomach ache in the morning before school, unable to eat breakfast. She was often irritable and irrational in her need to control her environment; her emotional responses were often extreme compared to the event. So, when her school work began to decline because she couldn’t concentrate in class, and her fears escalated to obsessions about school shootings and world disasters, her parents sought my help.
Childhood fears and worries are normal. Kids are afraid of the dark, monsters under their bed, and loud, scary noises; these fears are developmentally typical. At around age 5 or 6, they begin to recognize that danger exists and their parents may not always be there to protect them. This is a crucial time to assure our children that they are safe and help them develop courage to face their fears; this grows their confidence and strength. If we dismiss their fears or leave them to conquer them alone, their fears can intensify. Thankfully, most children outgrow these childhood fears. As they develop and feel more confident and competent, their fears naturally subside.
For some children their fears multiply and creep into their ability to function throughout the day. We call this anxiety. The Child Mind Institute cites anxiety as the most common childhood emotional problem. As a therapist, almost every child that comes into my office, regardless of the reason, has anxiety at the root. If you’re the parent of an anxious child, you may be feeling discouraged and powerless, especially if you’ve tried everything you can think of, but are still unable to provide the assurance and help needed. I want to encourage you that you are helping, even if it doesn’t feel like it, and there is hope and healing for your child.
The Anxious Brain
The difference between normal childhood fears and anxiety is the impact on daily functioning. Some anxiety is appropriate; this is how our brain lets us know we’re in danger and need to fight or flee to stay safe and alive. We call this response fight or flight. When our brain senses danger, the threat center immediately releases chemicals and hormones throughout our body to prepare us for action. Every human experiences this type of anxiety as a safety feature.
Sometimes, our brains trick us and that “rattle snake” we see on the path is actually just a stick! The rational part of the brain tells our body to calm down and brings us back to homeostasis, or normal functioning. But sometimes our threat centre can get out of control and begin to overwhelm our rational brain by keeping us stuck in a perpetual “What if” loop of impending disaster. As a result, the negative and uncomfortable emotional symptoms (e.g. fear, control, anger) and physical symptoms (e.g. racing heart, sweaty palms, stomach ache) begin to restrict our ability to live and enjoy life. Anxiety is very real, especially for your child, and they need to know
… there is hope.
… they’re not the only one who struggles (that this is common).
… you are there to support them.
Why Is My Child Anxious?
We now know that the potential for experiencing anxiety can be a result of both biological and environmental effects.
Biology. The tendency toward anxiety can be inherited, or it can be a result of stress or trauma to a mother during pregnancy or birth.
Social. Children sense their parents’ anxiety and fears, and even if they don’t understand it, they sense that they too should be anxious about something, because Mom or Dad is. This is a learned social response.
Trauma. Children are dependent on adults to keep them safe, and if that hasn’t happened, or if the child has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, they can grow up to believe that the world in general is not safe. You may not know what happened to scare your child, because they haven’t told you, or don’t fully remember what happened. When I was five years old, I had a scary experience with some ‘big’ boys chasing me through a park. Although I made it safely home, I never told my parents, and later only had glimpses of what happened. That experience impacted me for a long time until I began to recognize and face my irrational fear of being alone in open spaces.
What Can Parents Do?
If your child is experiencing some of the struggles that Marie has, their fears have likely begun to restrict their lives and overwhelm their thoughts. So, what can you do?
First, don’t panic. If you’re anxious about your child’s anxiety, they will sense it and that may increase their feelings of insecurity. Second, anxiety is the most treatable and manageable condition, so there is every reason to feel confident and have hope for your child. Anxiety wants to bully us with negative thoughts, making us feel that we have no control. But it’s a lie. The truth is, we can control what we think. We can talk back to our anxiety, telling it to stop, and set our minds on new, positive thoughts.
I strongly encourage you to seek some professional guidance for you and your child to assess the root of the anxiety and the best treatment course to achieve long-term results. In the meantime, teaching your child about their anxious bully brain is a great start. First, assess what your child is watching or hearing that could be contributing to their scary thoughts. I am concerned about both the amount and content of media exposure for our children today. Try reducing (or eliminating) their media use for a time to see if that helps calm their fears.
When I told Marie that the anxiety in her brain was telling her lies and helped her to voice what was true, she began to recognize her bully brain, and tell it to stop. I then encouraged Marie to think about the times she had faced scary things with bravery, and then imagine using that same courage to talk back to her bully brain. I also had Marie imagine a place in her mind where she felt happy and safe. She chose playing at the beach with her family. As I taught her to use all her senses (what do you see, hear, feel, smell, taste) to experience her safe place, she learned that she could choose to set her mind on feeling safe whenever she wanted. As she practiced (with her parent’s help), stopping and talking back to her bully brain, and learning to focus her thinking, her bully brain began to calm down and get quieter. She began to fall asleep faster, she felt more confident about going to school, and learned to use her rational brain to focus on the truth about her fears. The Child Mind Institute has more information on different types of anxiety in children and how you can help.
There is Hope!
Marie is getting her life back. That can happen for your child too. Letting them know that they can face their fears and learn to manage their anxiety will not only help them today, but will prepare them for tomorrow. And that’s what being a parent is all about.