Childhood anxiety can manifest itself in many ways and can have any number of root causes.
Some say that we only have two innate fears, sudden noises and being dropped; all others are learned. If this is true we teach our children to be afraid of things in many different ways. Some of these things can be for the best, like teaching your child that eating things they find on the floor are going to be covered in germs, while other things we teach can reach the proportions of phobias where we originally meant to do good. I know two people who have phobias of buttons because they were each told not to play with buttons or they would choke on them.
If Your Child Has Anxiety Or A Phobia, What can You Do About It?
If your child seems to be unreasonably scared of something, is there an identifiable cause? Some people worry that things like Grimm’s Fairy Tales are too much for small children, preferring to use homogenized, Bowdlerized versions of things like Snow White or Hansel and Gretel. However, in Bruno Bettelheim’s brilliant book ‘Uses of Enchantment’ he discovered that the bloody tales of death and loss actually helped the child deal with these events. Consider whether it is possible to involve the object of your child’s anxiety where it comes to a miserable end. You don’t want to freak your child out but they might like to hear about their bête noir coming to strife.
The thing is, if your child is anxious telling them not to be silly, not to think about it or to avoid situations where they feel uncomfortable are each counter-productive. In a similar way that telling children to ignore bullies and they will get bored actually makes the bullying worse, the bullies persist in victimizing the child just to see how much they are prepared to take before they snap, the same thing happens with anxiety. Leaving it untreated simply lets it get worse until it takes over and begins to affect a greater proportion of the child’s life.
Now, the very worst thing you could do to try and ‘cure’ your child is to attempt an ‘in at the deep end’ approach to making them face their fears. I’m pretty sure nobody actually learned to swim that way but I’m certain it destroyed the trust that had previously existed in many parent-child relationships.
Instead, talk to your child about what they are anxious about. Is it something you yourself are nervous around. As we’ve seen, fear is a learned response so could it be that you are, through body language and behaviour, teaching your child to be afraid. Babies are never afraid of things like spiders, rats or snakes, however, by the time they start school they have generally been taught that these are scary animals, even if they’ve had no exposure whatsoever to the creatures. Why should that be? Do you tense up when you see them on TV, or say ‘yuk’ when you see pictures of them in books?
Why Do We Learn Fear?
Fear is an important self preserving response to many situations. Our primordial ancestors taught their children to be afraid of the dark so they wouldn’t go running into caves where large beasts might be sleeping or go out into the night, away from where they could be seen.
When we’re faced with real or imminent danger we are glad to have been taught to be afraid as we prepare ourselves for a fight or flight response. However, when this goes wrong and we become anxious about normal, everyday things and situations the problem has to be dealt with as it won’t simply go away with time.
Anxiety is slightly different from fear itself. Anxiety is a sense of unease about what may develop in particular situations and as such is a precursor to fear. Children enjoy routine and structure. They also appreciate consistency. A regular bed time, never being allowed to feel hungry or cold will help.
Praise and reinforcement from you will make them feel stronger, and more confident. You should be reliable too, if your child does something which amuses you one week that they are punished for the next, they will become anxious as your reaction is unpredictable.
When it comes to communicating with your child, dealing with their anxiety will bring you closer. Ignoring their problem or dismissing it will make them feel isolated and unhappy. However, if you establish a dialogue with your child at this point in their lives they will realise that they have someone that they can talk to about their issues. They know that you understand and love them and that you’re always there to help them when they’re sad or afraid, on the other hand anxious children grow into detached adults.
Be The Person You Would Like Your Child To Be
Be brave and bold yourself. Set them the example that self-reliance is a good thing that they can do. We’ve all seen flappy parents and we’re never surprised that their children are afraid of their own shadows. ‘Helicopter Parents’ think they are doing good when thy hover around, never letting their child out of their sight but they are actually harming their child’s development in two ways: They teach the child that the world is indeed a dangerous place and they need to be afraid of things. Worse yet, they teach, by implication that the child is incapable of dealing with the world and is inadequate.
Encouraging brave behaviour is one thing, teaching problem solving and challenging unhelpful thoughts on top of this will turn an anxious child into a Go Getter! A child needs to know that making mistakes is acceptable as it is simply part of learning new skills.
A child who is self-reliant and who doesn’t mind challenges is unlikely to be nervous when thrown out of their comfort zone. As for challenging unhelpful thoughts, we’ve all heard children who say ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’m no good at that’ and told them off for it. That’s not challenging the thought, its punishing the child for having the thought.
We’re Only Having Positive Thoughts Today
To challenge the thought you need to put yourself in the child’s position. They might be no good at this or that but wouldn’t practice help them get better at it? Maybe if they try really hard now, by the time they’re bigger they might be able to do it really well? Making mistakes is learning how not to do something. Encourage your child to make all the mistakes until they run out and the only thing left is to do it right, when your child stops worrying about things like making mistakes, they learn to stop worrying.