by Angela Clack,PsyD~ Believe it or not, children as young as three years old experience stress. Children experience emotional and physical stress secondary to divorce, abuse and trauma, domestic violence, school changes, bullying, parental reactions to stress, peer rejection and peer neglect, shy and inhibited temperaments, sibling rivalry, homelessness, community violence to name a few conditions. In short, some of the very same stressors that stress adults impact children.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety can be a normal reaction to stress. It can help us deal with a tense situation, study harder for an exam, keep focused on an important speech. In general, it can help us cope. But when anxiety becomes an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations, it has become a disabling condition. Examples of anxiety disorders are obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia, separation anxiety, and generalized anxiety disorder. Symptoms of many of these disorders begin in childhood or adolescence (NIM fact sheet).
My private practice largely treats children suffering from mood and anxiety disorders and what I have found consistently is that anxious children often have anxious temperaments partly due to genetics, but greatly also due to their environmental influences. Anxious parents may or may not be consciously aware that the way they respond to stress affects their child directly and indirectly. Now, of course, there are children and adults who suffer from these conditions as a result of a recent or a single incident trauma that do not necessarily fall into the emotional trajectory I am focusing on in this article. In those cases, the anxiety is usually ameliorated with brief therapy and does not require medication or long term interventions.
Please parents, do not receive this message as a ‘blaming the parent’ focus. There are plenty of things parents get wrongfully blamed for as well as things we indeed need to take personal responsibility for in creating. My intent in educating and sharing with you the reader is more about the impact of the emotional connection between parents and children. If this sounds like your story with your child, own it and read on for ways to understand the origin of the problem and for ways to begin to treat the concerns.
Our children are like sponges and they absorb everything they hear us say and see us do! How many times have you been embarrassed by your child repeating something you said that you did not think he/she overheard. Managing our emotional reactions works similarly. I grew up with a friend who had a terrible experience with a dog chasing her. While not harmed, it certainly frightened her enough that she recalls the event often as if it is happening now. And wouldn’t you believe it, her seven year old daughter is deathly afraid of dogs although she has never had a bad experience or any experience with a dog. Imagine how that might have happened.
Children who struggle with anxiety disorders benefit from counseling for themselves but also for the family. When parents acknowledge their problems with anxiety, the therapist can work with the parent on ways to manage their internal distress and emotional reactions that will not inadvertently reinforce the child’s reactions to stress. Here are some ways to help your child cope with stress and anxiety as offered by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA):
- Get a professional assessment .
- Pay attention to your child’s feelings.
- Stay calm when your child becomes anxious about a situation or event.
- Recognize and praise small accomplishments.
- Don’t punish mistakes or lack of progress.
- Be flexible and try to maintain a normal routine.
- Modify expectations during stressful periods.
- Plan for transitions (For example, allow extra time in the morning if getting to school is difficult).
Keep in mind that your child’s anxiety disorder diagnosis is not a sign of poor parenting. It may add stress to family life, however (ADAA). It is helpful to build a support network of relatives and friends and/or to seek professional help for you. Children with emotional disorders should receive the consistent discipline and guidance like other children, yet you may find yourself being more sensitive at times depending on the situation.