Parents are anxious about anxiety. It’s funny to say, but not a laughing matter. These days, there is such a fine line between a normal amount of stress, and more serious mental health issue that should be addressed. In the wake of a particularly difficult day, some of us parents are left wondering, does my child have anxiety?
And if so, what am I supposed to do about it?
Anxiety in action
Before we get all huffy about putting a concrete definition on “anxiety,” let’s talk about how we parents often observe anxiety in action. We as parents see kids of all ages (from baby to teen) who:
- tell us they are afraid or anxious
- struggle to go to sleep
- wake up in the middle of the night
- have nightmares
- experience panic
- complain of stomachaches or headaches
- cling to parents or others
- regress or act dependent (I can’t do it, help me with something I know I can do, don’t leave me alone)
- struggle at bedtime
- refuse to go to school
- withdraw from normal activities
- worry about something bad happening to someone they care about
- refusal to sleep alone
- bed wetting
- repeated temper tantrums
If your child does any of these (one or all), does that mean she has a mental illness requiring treatment? We aren’t doctors here, so we’d recommend that you ask one. But read on for a parent’s perspective.
First of all, know that all children suffer from mental stress.
While childhood is supposed to be an ‘ignorance is bliss’ time, it is common for kids to have worries and fears. In most cases, these worries are overcome as they get older, mature, develop more self-confidence, and see more of the world.
Further, we as parents don’t have to jump the gun and assume that all kinds of anxiety are bad or harmful.
For example, “Stranger danger” is a type of anxiety children begin to exhibit before they reach 12 months of age. This is a stage of normal healthy emotional development and attachment. Your baby’s brain has grown and matured enough to tell the difference between his parents and someone who is not his parents. This is a normal type of anxiety that probably developed to keep infants and babies near their mothers back when we were still swinging from the vines in the jungle.
Separation anxiety is another common condition where a child can feel fearful and nervous, generally away from home or from a particular adult to whom the child is attached. This feeling can begin as early as 6-8 months, and can occur well into primary school. Separation can be minimal or severe, depending on the circumstance and the child. The reason we say circumstance is that in some cases, the anxiety is less developmental and more environmental. It can be difficult to manage a child with severe separation anxiety, but you can see from an evolutionary perspective where these types of anxieties come from.
Another type of anxiety is the overwhelming fear of something specific. You might see this as a fear of a particular bug or animal, a place or situation (being in the dark), or something happening to them.
Phobias are common. In fact, close to have of children aged 6-12 have what could be called a phobia. In most cases, these fears don’t require you to do anything, and will go away with time.
Did I Cause My Child’s Anxiety?
Parents can cause children to develop or experience anxiety. But just because your child is anxious, doesn’t mean that you should start pointing fingers at yourself or blaming yourself.
Many parental decisions (even good ones or necessary ones) can lead to anxiety. The decision to move to a new house, to start a new school, heck, to just start school for the first time…all of these things can be a trigger for anxiety. There’s nothing wrong with making decisions that result in change in the child’s life. Change is something everyone has to learn to live with.
However, children do learn from us. If your child watches you consistently act anxious, fearful, or unstable, the child may conclude that the situation is something she needs to worry about. When you do not have any coping mechanisms in place to assist you with your own anxiety, your children may struggle to cope, as well.
We also know that anxiety (as with other mental health disorders) can have a genetic component. As the biological parent of the child, you technically “cause” the child to have anxiety by giving her the genetic information for it. But this isn’t anything you did with the intention of giving or causing the child to have anxiety.
My advise is to worry less about who did what, and worry more about figuring out how to help your child get through it.
What can you do about your child’s anxiety?
As a parent, it is hard not to feel, well, anxious when your child is struggling.
First, and most important, when your child appears to be struggling with anxiety of any kind, you need to acknowledge her. You don’t have to play into the fear or anxiety. Just acknowledge that she is feeling a certain way. Children are rarely diabolical enough to fake these types of behaviors.
Next, try to reassure your child. You can’t resolve the fear for him. But a key component to overcoming any sort of fear or anxiety is stability. Your child needs to know she is safe, secured, and supported.
In all cases, try to maintain a regular and stable life. If you can set up a consistent schedule so your daughter knows what is going to happen and when will help her handle change and uncertainty.
Plan ahead. If you know that a major change is coming, prepare your child. Start talking to him about what is going to happen. Go through the scenarios. Answer the questions, Accept blow ups or emotional meltdowns. In doing so, you will be reassuring him over and over that he will continue to be loved and safe.
Keep your cool. When your child is anxious or scared (or in full on meltdown), you must maintain control over yourself. If you cannot keep your head on straight, you may end up validating the child’s fear as a certainty, that she really does have something to fear.
Don’t dismiss your child. Instead, try to answer questions or even invite them. She might catch you off guard with her worries. Do you have an answer prepared for questions like, “what happens if you die?” or “Am I going to die?”
It is okay to ask your child for some time to prepare the best answer for her. What you have to say to her in response matters less than how you say it. Just make sure that you can be calm and cool when you respond to her, even if the question is one that causes you significant emotion or anxiety as well. (No one likes to think about death)
There’s no real way to prevent anxiety. It is part of our evolutionary make-up. The best we can do is create a stable home and love the heck out of the kids.
If your child’s anxiety seems out of control, or you don’t feel confident in your ability to help him manage it, don’t be afraid to seek help. A good place to start is your pediatrician. Make an appointment and have a conversation about it.
You could also seek the assistance of child psychologist or psychiatrist to see whether any sort of therapy would assist. Medication is an option as well, but no one wants to start with drugs as the solution.
Don’t Forget to Take Care Of Yourself
If you and your child/children have recently been through tough or traumatic times, and you are seeing the impact of those experiences on the children, don’t forget that you also might need to get some help. We may not even realize it, but difficult times can impact how we parent.
I can personally attest to the fact that when I am stressed out, I struggle to be as patient and as forgiving as I am normally. Sometimes the self-care I need is to just take a little break. Other times it is talking through what is going on, or allowing myself to feel the emotions that have been held in check until my skin.
If your child is exhibiting a lot of signs of anxiety, as I said before, don’t start pointing the finger at yourself, and blame her anxiety on your own. Instead, recognize that you need help too, and then take proactive steps to get it.
Before you go, check out another one of these great articles from our awesome Mom Advice Line contributors, who are parents, just like you:
- Should I Put My Daughter In Ballet?
- Tips For Long Car Trips With An Infant
- Two African American Movie Directors You Should Know About
- How to Begin Jogging For The First Time
- Why Is It That Some People Don’t Want Kids?