Q&A Thursday: When is my child’s “fear” really anxiety?

Anxiety is considered a childhood epidemic in America today.  We see the results of this in our counseling offices weekly.  In fact, daily, I see a child between the ages of 6 and 12 who is struggling with some type of anxiety:  fear of throwing up, separation anxiety, fear of failing or making any kind of a mistake.

So, when is fear really anxiety?  What’s the difference?  We would say when the fears become debilitating.  I talk with kids all of the time about how every one of us has fears.  But what happens most of the time is that we have a fearful thought and pass right by it.  For a child (or adult) who is struggling with anxiety, that thought becomes what we call “looping.”  It’s a little like the roller coaster that is only one loop and goes over and over and over.  And my experience is that these types of loops also follow typical developmental trends. 

Tamar Chansky, who has written our favorite book called Freeing Your Child from Anxiety, has said the following about normal childhood fears in different stages of your child’s life:

"Infancy: In response to a growing ability to differentiate familiar faces (parents) from unfamiliar, stranger anxiety (clinging and crying when a stranger approaches) develops around 7-9 months and typically resolves by end of first year.

Early Childhood: As a healthy attachment to parents grows, separation anxiety (crying, sadness, fear of desertion upon separation) emerges around one year and improves over the next 3 years, resolving in most children by the end of kindergarten. As children's worlds expand, they may fear new and unfamiliar situations, and real and imagined dangers from big dogs, to spiders, to monsters. Children from age 3-6 are trying to master what is real and what is not, and until this is resolved, may have difficulty with costumed characters, ghosts, and supernatural beings. While trying to master fears of what could be they may struggle with the dark, the basement, closets, and under the bed. As a child learns how to manage and put aside these fears, their ability to sleep alone will be secured.

School Aged Children: Each year, with access to new information, children begin to fear real world dangers--fire drills, burglars, storms, illness, or drugs. With experience, they learn that these risks can exist as remote rather than imminent dangers. In middle school, growing importance of social status leads to social comparisons and worries about social acceptance. Concerns about academic and athletic performance, and social group identification are normal. Learning about various physical and mental health diseases in school may lead to some temporary concerns about risk and safety. Teenagers continue to be focused on social acceptance, but with a greater concern for finding a group that reflects their chosen identity. Concerns about the larger world, moral issues and their future success are common.”

You notice the phrase “resolves itself.”  Typical childhood fears do, sometimes with a little extra help from mom or dad.  Anxiety does not.  It becomes looping.  They become stuck in these typical childhood fears and can no longer function.  They can’t get out of the car at school for fear of throwing up.  They can’t attend a sporting event because of being afraid of the mascot.  They pull away from social events because they simply “can’t.” 

If your childhood falls along the lines of what we’ve described as anxiety, we would suggest you get a copy of Tamar Chansky’s book.  She has great tips and tools included.  We’ll include a few in upcoming blogs, too.  And, if using those at home doesn’t seem to help, call a counselor.  Sometimes it takes an adult who can offer a combination of unconditional support and empowering your son or daughter to slowly take risks that truly does free them from the anxiety.