Written by Regine Galanti
Anxiety, like all emotions, is a part of life. It is normal and natural to experience some degree of discomfort or anxiety at some point in life, specifically when confronting periods of change, or dangerous situations. If, for example, I was not somewhat anxious about danger, I might engage in risky behaviors such as crossing the street without looking for oncoming cars. As such, the presence of anxiety does not necessarily signify that anything is wrong.
This is all true for children as well. Ninety percent of children between the ages of 2 and 16 endorse having one or more fears, and worries are typically developmentally appropriate. While toddlers fear separation from loved ones, younger children tend to fear the imaginary (monsters, ghosts), and older children’s fears become more realistic in nature.
Furthermore, the nature of childhood is that change is ubiquitous. From learning new skills and things every day, to entering a new classroom and having a new teacher each year, to growing out of clothing every few months – children are constantly in a state of change and development. It is therefore no surprise that, according to some estimates, nearly 75% of children will have anxiety symptoms at some point.
This is both good and bad news. On the one hand, many cases of childhood anxiety are developmentally appropriate and require little or no intervention. On the other hand, however, childhood anxiety disorders can be real and require professional intervention – and in these cases, symptoms can worsen and persist into adulthood if left untreated.
How can you tell the difference?
Mild to moderate childhood anxiety which occurs during a period of change, is transient (comes and goes), and is not accompanied by significant behavior change usually needs no intervention. In such cases, parents should simply wait out the period of change and see what happens. If the symptoms persist, worsen or the child starts to develop problematic behavior patterns (see below), then a consultation with a professional may be in order.
By contrast, moderate to severe anxiety may require intervention, particularly if it occurs outside a specific period of change. The most common symptom of anxiety in children, however, is behavioral difficulties. It is generally harder for children to be “in touch with” and describe their emotions with words – and so, they may express themselves behaviorally. As such, if a child is having difficulty making friends, refusing to attend school or social events, refusing to be apart from parents or loved ones, or becoming aggressive, it is worth consulting with a professional to determine whether the child might be experiencing anxiety. Simply assuming that a child is being “difficult” or “lazy” can exacerbate the problem. However, with treatment, families and children can learn the skills they need to reduce anxiety symptoms that interfere with their lives.