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Anxiety is a familiar term and is a common experience for both children and adults at many times in their lives. For children, it is difficult to distinguish anxiety from fear, but generally anxiety is seen to be apprehension about future events that have not yet occurred. Fear, on the other hand, is a response to a situation, such as a child being afraid of an animal. The focus of this discussion is on anxiety, which is a feeling of apprehension without any apparent cause. Anxiety is a normal experience for all of us at one time or another, and becomes a concern when it becomes excessive and/or interferes with one’s typical daily routine. Anxiety can be experienced by a person as a long-term feeling or it may occur in a specific setting, such as when taking a test.
Anxiety may occur in response to specific situations such as speaking in front of a group, or be shown in many situations. Children who are referred to as “high-strung” may show some of the signs of anxiety. Some common characteristics of anxiety are listed below. Not all of these characteristics will be shown at one time, however, and all may be signs of other problems.
Anxiety in Children
As children progress in school, they tend to become anxious about being accepted by peers, overall school performance, expectations set by parents, physical appearance, and feelings of competence. They also may hold increased anxiety about the stability of family relationships, death, and the future. Research has shown that girls tend to show more general anxiety than boys, and their concerns are more centered around social acceptance and popularity. The reasons for these findings are not clear, but may be related to the social roles that girls are expected to maintain in our society.
Recognizing the signs of anxiety and knowing when they indicate problems is not an easy task. If you see some signs of anxiety, the following questions should be considered:
· Is the anxiety typical for a child of that age?
· Is the anxiety seen across many situations or is it limited to a specific situation, such as speaking in front of the class?
· Is the anxiety of a long-term nature or has it occurred recently?
· Are there events going on in the child’s life that are causing stress and pressure?
· Is the anxiety a sign of a larger problem, such as home and family difficulties?
· Is the anxiety having a great effect on the child’s personal, social, and school functioning?
The last question is the most important, because if the child is having difficulty with everyday activities, the problems must be addressed regardless of their cause. By attending to the degree to which anxiety might be interfering with the child’s functioning, answers to the other questions will become important in determining the nature, scope, and source of the child’s anxiety. Once the entire situation is understood, then plans to work with the anxiety can be developed.
The potential causes of anxiety are many, but the primary characteristic is that the child or adolescent is uncertain about something that has not yet happened. It matters little that the anxiety about a situation may not be logical, realistic or justified. As long as someone feels uncertain whether something in the future might have a direct effect, he/she may become anxious. Anxiety is most likely to be shown when the person feels that something bad will happen and that they have no control over it. It is when people are apprehensive about the future and feel unable to do anything about it that anxiety is most likely to occur.
Nearly any event or circumstance can cause anxiety by creating a situation in which the person cannot predict an outcome and feels unable to make significant changes. Family problems (e.g., pending divorce, competition with siblings), excessive or unusual discipline practices, inconsistency in how children are handled or treated by adults, high expectations and standards set up by the child or others that are perceived to be unattainable, peer pressure to conform or “fit in,” rejection (or in some cases, acceptance as the child must now meet new expectations) by peers, high needs for achievement, concerns about success or failure, physical appearance, and ability level in a variety of areas are some of the factors that can contribute to the development of anxiety in children. It should be noted that anxiety often is shown in these situations, which is normal. Anxiety becomes problematic when it becomes so intense that the child’s personal-social and/or school functioning begins to deteriorate.
Sometimes, there may be more than one factor contributing to the child’s anxiety. For example, one 15-year-old girl complained of “test anxiety” in which she “froze” when taking a test. It was determined that she was indeed so afraid of getting a low grade that she could not perform. Moreover, she was concerned about disapproval from her mother if she got a low grade, and that she would have to compete even more with her new stepfather whom her mother had recently married.
What can I do as a parent?
In determining if anxiety is present and is a problem to be addressed, you as a parent should consider the questions given above. In terms of some ways to deal with anxiety, the following guidelines might be helpful:
· Provide as much consistency as possible in handling and discipline.
· Set realistic goals and expectations for yourself and your child that are reasonable and attainable.
· Try to keep as consistent a schedule as possible in terms of homework, household chores, activities, etc.
· Listen to your child. Many times, a child will feel anxious about a specific situation and all he/she needs is to talk to someone who will listen and give advice only when asked.
· Do not assume that the child is just being difficult, as the anxiety may be a sign of a more significant problem.
· Do not assume that it will “go away,” as you may end up not recognizing a potentially serious problem.
If the above questions and suggestions do not provide you with the help you need, it may be that the child’s anxiety is a sign of a larger problem that must be addressed. In these cases, Dr. Messenger will be very helpful in understanding your child and implementing appropriate interventions Intervention Consultation and perhaps Solution-Focused Brief Therapy if warranted. In addition, your family physician or minister or rabbi may be available to provide you help.
Young children experience anxiety normally as a process of growing up. Infants tend to feel anxiety about falling, loud noises, and having physical needs met. Anxiety in infants is shown in generalized activity that becomes more specific with age. At about 7-9 months of age, babies start to show anxiety of new people. It is at this point that the child can distinguish typical caretakers from strangers and he/she is apprehensive (anxious) about the absence of familiar persons. This form of anxiety is shown by refusing to be held by strangers, clinging to parents, and crying when alone with unfamiliar people. This “stranger anxiety” usually ends by about 12-14 months.
At about 18-24 months, children demonstrate a related type of anxiety called “separation anxiety.” This anxiety is shown by crying, temper tantrums, and attempting to cling to parents or caretakers. While this form of anxiety appears to be similar to stranger anxiety, it is different from the child’s perspective. The anxiety is not a response to what might happen to the child if held by a stranger, but to the possibility that the parents might not return and to what might be the consequences of their not returning. By the time children enter school, these forms of anxiety ordinarily have dissipated and the child is more secure about being with strangers and not concerned about being left by parents.
· over-sensitivity to normal events
· fear of future outcomes
· concentration difficulties
· inattention to school work
· excessive movement
· sleeping problems
· rapid breathing
· unusual fatigue
· running away from a situation
Adapted from an article published by he National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
Don't believe everything you think. ~ Anonymous
When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. ~ Wayne Dyer
Notice: Leave of Absence Closure
Dr. Messenger will be starting A Leave of Absence as of Friday, Jan. 20, 2017 for an unspecified time. Assessments and consultation can be scheduled until then. The website will remain available for educational purposes, until the office is reopened.
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