If you have an anxious child or teen, you may wonder where their anxiety is coming from. The short answer is: fear. Psychologists have found that most anxiety stems from fear and the way our brains process this emotion as we grow and develop. And while fear is the body’s response to either an actual or imagined threat, anxiety is the expectation of a threat without knowing it is present.
So Let’s Talk About Fear
Fear is a very common and necessary emotional state and one that children and adolescents often experience. For example, a child may feel scared:
The world is novel and strange to them at first, and, as a result, children spend a lot of time in a state of unease — they don’t know what to expect yet.
By adolescence, children may have outgrown some of these fears, but experience the same feeling in situations such as:
At different developmental periods, fear is appropriate in all of these situations, at least for a moment. But, what about when this fear surpasses the typical duration or when it increases in severity? What about when the child’s fears seem to be unavoidable or unable to be overcome, no matter how many times a child interacts with the fear trigger?
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Psychologists have long studied fear and identified it as one of humankind’s primary emotions, and one that has helped us evolve throughout time[1, 2, 3]. Fear helps to protect us, generally keeping us safe and away from situations that threaten our lives. When a person perceives a threat, the body sends a response, signaling danger.
This sense of fear will initiate a natural behavioral reaction designed to help a person escape from whatever is triggering them to feel unsafe. Theorists like Dr. Robert Plutchik suggest that this response was maintained throughout evolution because of its effectiveness in keeping people out of harm’s way.
The problem, however, is that somewhere along the way our brains began receiving the “danger” signal way too often, or at times when it is not necessary. This causes children and adults alike to develop oftentimes irrational and uncontrollable fears, which is anxiety.
While fear is the body’s response to either an actual or imagined threat, anxiety is the expectation of a threat without knowing it is present.
Let’s look at why kids begin exhibiting signs of anxiety, and how to distinguish between typical fearful/worried behaviors and anxious symptoms that may require professional support from a mental health specialist.
There are typical fear-related developmental milestones that most children experience that do not necessarily indicate concerns for development of an anxiety disorder. Here is a list of common worries for children throughout their development and what professionals consider typical for their age:
Normal Child Fear/Worries
All these fears are things that are either short in duration (meaning they are not in a state of fear for long and are able to resume their normal day-to-day life) or can be lessened with increased exposure to the trigger.
For example, if a child is afraid of a dog when they first arrive at a home, but is able to acclimate to the dog while being in proximity, this is a typical fear response.
If a child generally becomes fearful and upset when separating from a parent, but they are able to become used to spending time away from them with gradual practice, this is also typical.
**Note: While these are considered typical patterns of fear, worry, or anxiety in children, using the tips in the “How Can I Help My Child?” section below can help you support your child to conquer those fears.
More extreme fears and worries may indicate that your child needs some assistance from a mental health professional to help them overcome these struggles, Here is a list of behaviors related to fear and worry that are more extreme in nature:
There are many different types of diagnosable anxiety conditions based on the symptoms the child presents, and their presence for at least 6 months.
Excessive difficulty separating from home or primary caregiver.
A child’s inability to speak or communicate with others in specific social settings (usually school). This is not related to a child’s physical or neurological inabilities, but rather a severe discomfort in some situations. These children talk freely when they are in comfortable situations but cannot speak or communicate in other, less comfortable settings.
Irrational and excessive fear of a specific object, situation, or species. Anything from fear of spiders to fear of heights can be considered a specific phobia.
Severe fear of being judged, mocked, or humiliated in public settings causing a child to refuse to participate in social functions.
Experiencing panic attacks, and a fear of having another one (fear of losing control of preventing another attack from occurring). A child with panic disorder often avoids places or situations in fear of having a panic attack in that setting.
Excessive and irrational fear of leaving a place a person sees as safe and secure in fear that they will not be able to escape a life-threatening circumstance, or that they would not be able to receive help if something went wrong.
Persistent and continuous worry and fear about a variety of different things. Childen with generalized anxiety disorder generally expect bad things to happen and may exhibit a lot of avoidance of anything they feel could “go wrong.” These kids are usually overly concerned and ruminate (over-think) about everyday things in their life while worrying that they could go wrong.
Experiencing uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts and behaviors that a child has the urge to repeat in an effort to remain healthy or safe (hand-washing, saying words, etc).
While this list isn’t exactly a list of causes of anxiety, any of these things can serve as stressors that impact a child’s ability to gradually grow out of their fears, and may increase the likelihood that they begin to expect that a threat is coming.
Children who live with parents who are anxious are more likely to learn the patterns of being excessively worried and expecting the worst, both from genetics (nature) and parenting (nurture). Parental stress is something that kids can absorb very quickly and can influence the way they see the world.
Difficulties managing relationships or emotions in general in the home can increase a child’s fears, worries, and stressors, thus increasing the likelihood of a child experiencing anxious symptoms. Authoritarian parenting styles — militant, strict, and overly negative parenting — can also increase a child’s symptoms of anxiety.
Experiencing bullying or other negative peer interactions, or generally feeling like you don’t fit in can increase a child’s difficulty with managing negative thoughts and negatively predicting the future, often increasing anxious symptoms.
Any major distressing event — including natural disasters, abuse/neglect, injury, illness, etc. — involving the child or someone close to them can have a major effect on a child’s ability to feel safe, thus impacting his or her ability to overcome fear associated with things that remind them of these experiences.
Click HERE to read more about trauma
Every child has fears., The parent’s job is to be supportive and empathetic about these fears, but also to challenge children to overcome their fears when they appear irrational and excessive. Here are some suggestions to help your child improve their ability to be brave and overcome their fears:
Anxious children can generally feel tense and their bodies hold a lot of negative energy, thus increasing the odds that their thoughts will gravitate toward negative expectations. To help with this, you can help your child relax with a couple simple strategies:
Keeping things simple and clear for anxious kids is of utmost importance. If your child is experiencing severe anxiety, it’s important to have goals in mind for helping them challenge their fears gradually, while also considering that they may need time away from the hustle and bustle of weekend activities and play dates to be able to do that. Having clear expectations surrounding what you will participate in, for how long, and when to call it quits and give your child the ability to utilize relaxation skills is key.
A mental health professional is skilled in all of these areas and will provide you and your child with personalized ways to help your child overcome their fears and symptoms of anxiety. They will also develop strategies to help your child become braver in a loving and effective way.
Some children grow out of symptoms of anxiety and others develop more chronic and life-long difficulties. If your child is exhibiting some of the severe symptoms, seeking professional help early is the best step to help a child catch their negative thought patterns and excessive worry before it becomes a more developed and long-term pattern.
It can be so distressing to see a child scared and upset — sometimes just having another person on your team trying to help them overcome their fears and worries can help a parent feel more supported, as well.
Mental health professionals who specialize in anxiety with children generally take a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach, where they help a child to recognize the way they think and how it affects their feelings, emotions, and behavior.
It’s generally suggested that children under five participate in a family treatment model where parents learn the skills they need to help a child challenge their fears in a healthy way.
Older children can participate with a therapist alone and learn the skills they need to challenge their negative automatic thought patterns and feel less scared and nervous about whatever is triggering them. Often this kind of work can be supplemented by medication support with a psychiatrist or general practitioner, though this is not necessary for every case.
Overall, anxiety is treatable by all who work in mental health, and once you get a team together to discuss your goals for improving your child’s anxiety symptoms, real, lasting change can begin.