No question, hands down, I get more requests from friends, family, and acquaintances for help finding support and and advice parenting anxious children than any other pediatric issue in the school years. So it’s my sincere DELIGHT to introduce and partner with Dr. Kathy Melman on my podcast. Dr Melman runs the outpatient psychiatry and behavioral health clinic and has decades of experience advising families and supporting anxious children. She helps translate the facts around what causes anxiety, how to discern anxious behavior from clinical anxiety, and helps parents understand just what we know and what we don’t. Her tips and advice below!
Where Does Anxiety Come From?
1. Anxiety is a normal emotion and a natural part of life. Fear exists in all of us and there are typical fears that are seen at different developmental stages such as Stranger Anxiety (clinging and crying) at 7-9 months of age. This happens as the child goes through developmental changes such as the stronger ability to differentiate familiar faces from those that are unfamiliar. Anxiety is a normal and important emotion that is adaptive and protective. For example, anxiety helps us stay away from dangerous situations such as leaving or not entering a building when we see smoke or fire or smell something burning. Imagine living at a time or in a place without grocery stores or restaurants for securing food, without homes with locking windows and doors. Imagine that we instead have to venture out to hunt and gather food with concern about dangerous animals or people lurking behind a bush. In this situation, concern about safety is warranted and being vigilant, scanning the environment to pick up on danger cues would help someone survive. The rush of adrenaline that occurs when highly anxious is called the “fight or flight” response and it helps someone escape or avoid dangerous situations.
2. Environmental Stress: Anxiety increases in more stressful situations. This can includes fear of safety, homelessness, instability with frequent moves or other important life changes, loss or death of caregivers or other important people, war, hearing or seeing disturbing news, economic difficulties, abuse, sexual assault, bullying at school, high pressure, expectations and demands in school, home and/or activities. Even in healthy, safe environments, all children experience some anxiety. For example, occasional or short lived worries occur when a child is faced with an especially stressful or new, unfamiliar situation. These are real issues with all that is going on in the world right now.
3. Environmental Learning: Dr. Melman reminds, “Children Learn What Children Live.” Modeling matters. Listen to what Dr. Melman shares in the podcast about overprotection and the risks of being over-involved.
4. Avoidance. Anxiety is maintained and strengthened by avoidance. Through avoidance, you don’t get to see that your worst fears will not happen and that you can, in fact, do it! Let’s look at an example of a child invited for a sleepover at a friend’s house. Perhaps this child is not experienced with sleeping away from home and struggles with sleeping in his own room and bed at home. The idea of a sleepover sounds fun and then reality hits as the time to go to sleep approaches. The child becomes panicked, maybe with physical symptoms such as heart racing and pounding and stomach aches. He has thoughts that he won’t be able to fall asleep or that something bad will happen like a robber breaking in, and calls his parents to pick him up which they do. The child starts to feel relieved and no longer anxious as soon as they learn that they can escape this feared situation by going home. The child’s fear and desire to escape and avoid is strengthened because of the strong relief is experienced when rescued and by the fact that parents agreed that there was a need to come home rather than an ability to cope, ride out this wave of distress, stay the night and see that nothing bad happened and that he could, in fact, be courageous!
5. Expecting Bad Things to Happen: Anxious thinking also plays a role in where anxiety comes from.
6. Genes: Anxiety Disorders runs in families. What can we do if our child has a genetic loading for anxiety disorders? While we can’t change genes, we can aim to reduce stress in our lives and change our own modeling and reactions. We can learn to understand and accept our child’s temperament/wiring and empathize with our child’s feelings while also teaching our children how to think more realistically about the world, to expect less danger in situations, and encourage our child to approach in a gradual and consistent manner the situations that he or she fears. We can give our children skills to cope more effectively with challenging situations.