Professor of Psychology, Ron Rapee from Macquarie University is a Director of the Centre for Emotional Health, in this series of short videos he discusses, anxiety in children, what to look out for, where to get help and the role parents can play in helping their children.
Anxiety is something everyone experiences from time to time; it is a normal and natural response that occurs when a person feels threatened or is worried that something bad or unpleasant might happen. It’s usual for children to feel anxious or fearful about a variety of different things during their development. After all, children are confronted with all sorts of new experiences and challenges as they grow up and learn about the world around them. In most cases these fears are transitory and do not significantly interfere with a child’s academic, social or family life. Some common anxieties of different childhood developmental stages are outlined below.
7mth to Toddler: fear of strangers, separation, loud noises, large machines such as the vacuum cleaner or lawn mower, animals
Toddler to Middle Childhood: fear of animals/ insects, the dark, separation from parents, supernatural beings such as monsters, thunder and lightning, sleeping alone, ‘bad’ people
Middle Childhood to Late Childhood: supernatural beings, the dark, bodily injury, heights, getting lost or trapped, burglars, doctors/ dentists, death and dying
Late Childhood to Early Adolescence: fears revolve around social or evaluative situations, e.g. being teased or rejected by peers, being embarrassed, dating, giving oral reports, taking tests, fear of death or physical injury.
For some children, fears and anxieties can have a significant impact on the way they perform at school, on their ability to make or maintain friends, and on their family life. Children who experience problematic anxiety generally meet several of the descriptions below:
- they are extremely well behaved at school and tend not to bother anyone.
- they avoid trying new things even when safe or fun.
- they tend to become distressed by normal changes, breaks from routine, or taking risks.
- they become upset (e.g. cry) very easily.
- they have a tendency to highlight the negative consequences of any situation, e.g. ‘all the kids will hate me’, ‘mum and dad will have an accident and die’.
- they avoid situations or objects they fear, e.g. a child with social anxiety will avoid attending parties or participating in groups.
- physical complaints are common. Because some children don’t have the vocabulary or awareness to describe their anxiety they may express it via physical symptoms such as feeling sick, having a lump in their throat, or sore shoulders from muscle tension.
- they may ask many unnecessary questions and require constant reassurance.
- they may have difficulty separating from parents.
- they may be very clingy with a parent or loved one in situations outside home.
- they may repeatedly have worries about school at the beginning of each term or each Monday.
- they may avoid unfamiliar situations, become sick, not turn up or endure situations with significant distress.
- they often ask questions which begin with ‘what if…?’.
- they may be perfectionistic, taking excessive time to complete homework because they try to get it absolutely correct.
- they may have difficulty sleeping, taking a long time to get to sleep or waking during the night and needing comfort from parents.
- they can be argumentative (but rarely aggressive) if trying to avoid a feared situation.
Reprinted with permission from Lyneham, Heidi (2001) Clinic Outreach Programme for Anxious Kids (COPA-K) Macquarie University. www.psy.mq.edu/.