Some children are afraid of the dark. Some fear monsters under the bed. But at least 10% of children have excessive fears and worries—phobias, separation anxiety, panic attacks, social anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder—that can hold them back and keep them from fully enjoying childhood. This is according to Dr. Ronald Rapee (2008) in his book, “Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents”.
It is important to be aware of the difference between age appropriate fears and excessive worrying. For example, babies fear loud noises, do not want to be separated from their parents and are typically uncomfortable with strangers. These responses generally disappear when they become toddlers. During this time they fear imaginary creatures like monsters and darkness. At age 5-6 years, children start to worry about getting hurt physically such as falling down or being kidnapped. Later on, they gradually develop fears of natural events like thunderstorms.
When children start attending school, they begin to worry about how well they are performing academically. They are concerned if their friends like or dislike them. During adolescence, they start to worry about how other people see them. Such anxieties are usually transient and they are generally developmentally appropriate. However, if a child’s anxieties persist and worsen over time, and he or she is not supported to deal with them, it could lead to unhealthy behaviours later on [more on this topic in a later post].
Children’s anxiety symptoms often go unnoticed due to their internalizing their fears and worries. Parents would sometimes dismiss their persistent fears as baseless worries or as a developmental phase their children will outgrow. An even less helpful response would be to see the child’s fears as a character flaw or as a sign of weakness. Anxious children do who not get help or support are, thus, more susceptible to develop maladaptive coping behaviours, perhaps even an anxiety disorder during their adolescent years or later on in adulthood.
Anxiety is also often experienced in the body. When a child is anxious, somatic symptoms such as abdominal discomfort, headaches, muscle tension, sweating, increased heart rate and numbness are often reported. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to your child’s complaints. Outwardly, they may appear restless, have difficulties sleeping or a poor appetite. Additionally, there could be unexplained anger outbursts whereby they throw tantrums, are argumentative or irritable and often cry. Such behaviours can often be misunderstood by adults as rebellion or opposition when in truth, it could be a case of the child experiencing overwhelming anxieties.
Some common concerns that parents have include:
If you notice any of the above behaviours or symptoms in your child, he or she may be experiencing some form of anxiety. Consider taking your child to a psychologist or a counsellor who has training and experience dealing with children’s wellbeing issues. Timely intervention could make a difference between your child’s thriving in life and his/her prolonged quiet suffering.
Neo Eng Chuan founded and heads CaperSpring. A psychologist by education, he practices marital and family therapy working with adults, couples and families who are experiencing psychological, emotional and relationship difficulties. He received his psychology education at the Australian National University in Canberra Australia under a government study award and later completed a Masters in Applied Psychology at the National Institute of Education, Singapore.More about Neo Eng Chuan
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