Education Column: Worried About Worrying?

By Catherine Neiswonger

The beginning of the school year can be anxiety-provoking for parents and children alike. Anxiety is normal and can even be beneficial when faced with a difficult situation. You may be anxious about how something may turn out, how others will react to you, or if you will do something right. Adults experience this all the time, and we understand these anxieties can provoke us to focus and push through on important tasks. In children, anxiety can present itself as fear or worry.

There are development stages where specific fears typically present themselves. In young children, we see them being scared of the dark, monsters, separation, animals, and strangers. As children grow, these fears change to fears about being accepted socially, academic and sport achievement, health, mortality, and family.

Fear can also come from everyday LIFE. Transitions/changes to our routines and rituals can cause anxiety, a new sibling being born, starting school, moving into a new house, death, making or not making new friends or, trying to master a new task. Add to this the demands that are put upon children and their understanding of their ability to meet expectations. If expectations are appropriate that we can minimize anxiety and stress.

Extraordinary events like parent conflict or separation, illness or injury to a loved one, separation from parents, family or community, violence, and natural disasters can produce an appropriate response of worry but can lead to prolonged and more profound issues of anxiety.

Children may demonstrate anxiety in many ways –

Physically your child may complain of headaches or stomachaches, even though there’s no medical reason for them. They may refuse to eat snacks or lunch at daycare or school. Maybe they won’t use bathrooms except at home or have trouble falling or staying asleep.

Emotionally your child may cry a lot, be overly sensitive, or be grouchy or angry without an apparent reason. They may be afraid of making even minor mistakes or worry about things far off in the future. They may even have frequent nightmares about losing a parent or loved one.

Behaviorally your child may avoid joining class activities or remain silent or preoccupied when expected to work with others. They may avoid social situations like birthday parties, refuse to go to school, or have meltdowns or tantrums. They may need constant approval from parents, caregivers, and friends.

Whatever the signs are, we need to appreciate that they FEEL it. It is real to them, even if they don’t know how to define it. Helping a child recognize and label how they are feeling goes a long way into assisting them to move through it. Children are not fully capable of understanding how they feel about things. Some responses may take even them by surprise. You don’t want to belittle fears, but you also don’t want to amplify them. The message you want to send is: “I know you’re scared, and that’s okay, and I’m here, and I’m going to help you get through this.” Recognizing and validating a feeling makes it easier to know what to do with it.

If you feel good, it is easier to approach any circumstances positively. A proper diet, healthy activity, and plenty of rest are so important. That includes a daily routine and structure that your child can rely upon to be predictable. Regular routines give us all a sense of control. When we know what is going to happen and how we are expected to respond, we can relax and be in the moment. Set limits and enforce them consistently. Inconsistency in our responses to children can provoke anxiety because they can’t determine when something is okay and when it is not.

Be the good you want to see in your child. Let your child see how you cope with anxiety yourself. Children are perceptive, and they’re going to take it in the ways you respond to life’s frustrating and distressing situations. Let your child hear or see you managing it calmly, tolerating it, feeling good about getting through it.

A child’s fears are very real to them, and we shouldn’t try to convince them otherwise. You can express confidence that they’re going to be okay, they can manage it, and that, as they face their fears, the anxiety level will drop over time. This gives a child confidence that your expectations are realistic, and that you’re not going to ask them to do something they can’t handle. What you don’t want to do, with your tone of voice or body language, is unintentionally send a message that he should, indeed, be worried. Be realistically positive.

The goal is to help a child manage anxiety not to eliminate it. None of us wants to see a child unhappy, but the best way to help children overcome fear isn’t to try to remove stressors that trigger it. Helping children avoid the things they are afraid of will make them feel better in the short term, but it reinforces the anxiety over the long run. We want them to know that they can tolerate anxiety in order to do what they want or need to do, and the more we try, the less we fear. It might not drop to zero, it might not drop as quickly as you would like, but that’s how we get over our fears.

Catherine Neiswonger is the Director of Round Hill Nursery School with 30 years of experience helping families raise young children.