The Drama of the Anxious Child

Childhood anxiety is on the rise at every level, from fear of monsters under the bed to severe anxiety disorders

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When I was first studying psychology, thirty years ago, I learned that about 10-20% of children are born with a temperament that is highly reactive to anything new and unfamiliar. Some of these children go on in life to be anxious, timid, or shy (or, as we shy people like to say, “slow to warm up.”) A much smaller number of children, about 1-5%, were diagnosed at that time with a full-fledged anxiety disorder.

Nowadays, there are still 10-20% with that reactive temperament, but the number of children with a diagnosable anxiety disorder has skyrocketed, up to 25% according to the National Institute of Mental Health. A report from the National Institutes of Health adds, “There is persuasive evidence from a range of studies that anxiety disorders are the most frequent mental disorders in children and adolescents….” These new numbers must be viewed skeptically, of course, because of the trend towards looser and broader definitions of mental illness. Many commentators have linked this trend to the influence of pharmaceutical companies on diagnosis and prescription patterns.

Despite these caveats, however, I believe that childhood anxiety is indeed on the rise at every level, from fears of monsters under the bed to phobias and panic attacks to severe anxiety disorders.

Last year I gave a lecture on childhood anxiety to parents at a public elementary school. I heard about children who couldn’t be in a different room from their parents, even to use the bathroom, children who were too afraid of the water to swim or even take a shower, and children who were too afraid of making a mistake to function well in the classroom.

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Of course, these were parents who chose to attend a lecture on childhood anxiety, but many teachers have told me that they now have a number of highly anxious children in every class. What struck me most in this group was that none of these children was in therapy, and none had received an “official” diagnosis of an anxiety disorder (though I did give out a few business cards).

In my practice I have seen more and more children who have too much social anxiety to go to school, too much stress about grades to enjoy life, and too much separation anxiety to achieve independence as they grow older. My colleagues report the same rise in fears, worries, and anxieties.

What’s going on?

Anxiety is an alarm system—we need a little jolt of it so we will look both ways before crossing the street, but we also need an all-clear signal when the danger has passed. I think our constantly wired world has drowned out the all-clear signal. We hear instantly about every disaster, and we are bombarded with graphic images that repeat on a loop—first onscreen and then in our minds.

Another way to think of anxiety is as a simple formula: Add up all the things that cause us stress, and then subtract all of our abilities to cope. The net result is our anxiety level. This formula makes it clear why childhood anxiety is on the rise. Schools are more competitive and stressful, children are more overscheduled, parents are worried about finances and safety, and our society is based on a win-lose model, where only a few children will be able to succeed. Meanwhile, coping mechanisms are disappearing: Children don’t get enough time outside, either experiencing nature or running around in their neighborhoods. Children don’t spend nearly enough time doing “nothing,” enjoying the downtime necessary to process all their new experiences. Instead, they are desperately engaged in a drive to never be bored. I think many parents have put themselves—and their children—into an anxiety-producing corner. They want their children to be academically successful and always happy and creative and socially/emotionally intelligent. It’s an impossible demand, and the inevitable result is anxiety and burnout.

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In order to change this, we first need to look to ourselves. What are we doing to manage our own anxiety? I have lost count of the number of parents who tell me they don’t pressure their high-strung children. Let’s get real. I’ve been observing a strange mix of avoidance and pressure in today’s parents. They say things like, “You don’t have to swim (or go to birthday parties, or play soccer) if you don’t want to,” but at the same time they are distraught about their child not having a best friend or the right playdates in kindergarten.

As parents, we need to focus on the opposite of worry, anxiety, and fear. In terms of the body, that means relaxation, physical activity, roughhousing, and outdoor time. In terms of overprotectiveness, that means letting children have adventures that are scary, fun, and safe. In terms of specific phobias, the opposite is a gentle nudge towards facing the feelings and overcoming the fears. And for us parents, the opposite of worry is trust: trust in the power of development, trust in the resilience of children, and trust that the world is a good and safe place for our children to grow up.

MORE: The Two Faces of Anxiety

8 comments
MelissaTurner
MelissaTurner

Have any of these children been tested for pyrrole disorder?  Ruling out nutrient deficiencies through testing and supplementing could have a valuable place in their treatment.  Check out the work of Dr William Walsh or read up on the causes and symptoms of pyrrole disorder to rule this out if you are dealing with anyone with anxiety.  Of course environmental factors have a huge part to play too but our diets have also changed considerably in the last few generations meaning our bodies can be lacking in the building blocks for good mental and hormonal health/balance.  Balancing a child's blood sugar alone can help significantly improve their symptoms of anxiety.

holow
holow

My son has severe anxiety and had to be home schooled. He is 20 yr's old now and is working on getting his drivers license. He wants to get a job, but for now, cannot do so b/c of his anxiety level. His anxiety affects every aspect of his life: eating out, shopping, talking on the phone, answering the door, you name it. He spends his time now playing video games and helping out around the house. It breaks my heart to see him go through so much pain, I feel so helpless and worry about how he will make it when I am gone. He does have desire, motivation, plans, and wants for his future, so I am at least hopeful for him. He is on medication and has been in therapy. Currently, I am just so lost and worried for him.

ThomasEReed
ThomasEReed

I see nothing wrong with children being anxious and fearful all the time. It is a perfectly appropriate response to the violent and insane world in which we live. It's far better than the teachers and educators who would continually blow smoke up tiny butts, reassuring them that there is nothing wrong out there, or that what is wrong will eventually be fixed. Neither of those is true, and children who are anxious will undoubtedly live longer.


laroyden
laroyden

Kids today are not allowed to be just kids. They have become their parents "hobby"...No outdoor time playing with other kids  making up games, building forts, riding bikes  or just plain hanging out......Over anxious parents are producing over anxious kids.They're never alone as Mommy and Daddy organize and supervise every waking moment....they are never allowed to fail at anything and never given the chance to become independent.....wow....I pray for my grandchild

sixtymile
sixtymile

Avoiding risk and stress seems like a way to increase anxiety, and a highly protective parent seems to be communicating danger, not safety. Life is "scary", and it can be "fun", but it is never really "safe". Anyone, child or adult, who expects to be successful by avoiding stress is pretty much doomed to a lifetime of fear of failure, or worse... fear and failure.

LisaLFlowers
LisaLFlowers

This article was too short. I wish I had more information! I have often felt that my child suffers from this triggered by my own stress. And I consciously work on saying and doing things to reduce stress towards my child. But I know I can do more. What are your suggestions as I live in a rural area with limited resources, such as therapists.

idontwantanotherusername
idontwantanotherusername

@ThomasEReed Although I agree about children deserving the truth I have to disagree with the rest of your statement. Anxiety occasionally is a perfectly appropriate response when the situation warrants. Some who has anxiety, suffers from anxiety, whatever you want to call it, don't have that appropriate response. You live in a constant state of fear which is exhausting and unhealthy. You should be able to be aware without being scared all of the time. Long-term anxiety leads to depression and suicidal thoughts, and I don't about you, but I don't want that for my children. 

GwendolynK
GwendolynK

@LisaLFlowers Dr Cohen will be giving a free teleconference with Patty Wipfler, the founder of Hand in Hand Parenting in October. You can sign-up on their website: handinhandparenting.org