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Anxiety and Children  

Anxiety is one of the most common symptoms to impact people, children included. The impact of anxiety can range significantly, from creating mild discomfort in specific situations to keeping a child confined to their home. Today I am going to look at the makeup of anxiety and how it works and develops.

Traditional psychological views of anxiety saw it as coming from unresolved unconscious processes and suggested that gaining insight into those unresolved issues was the best path to reduce anxiety. While most therapists today wouldn’t explain anxiety in terms of unresolved unconscious processes, many do still believe the best treatment for anxiety involves developing insight into its causes. Unfortunately, such therapy is pretty ineffective for anxiety and can at times even be counterproductive.

The best way to conceptualize anxiety is to see it as having two components: a biological or body component and a cognitive or thought component. Children vary in the reactivity of their nervous systems. That is, they tend to differ in how much their “fight or flight” system gets activated by different situations. Those children who are more reactive are also more likely to develop anxiety problems. Anxiety is a natural, helpful phenomenon. Its purpose is to warn us of and protect us from dangers. It becomes problematic when it gets out of control and starts protecting us from things that aren’t’ really dangerous.

Children tend to develop different fears at different ages. Younger children’s fears are often about separation from their parents. As they get older they can develop fears about specific situations or things. For instance, fear of throwing up is not uncommon. Fear related to social situations tends to become more prominent when children get to adolescence and social relationships become a more important part of their life.

An important thing to know about anxiety is that doing what anxiety tells you to do makes anxiety stronger. Let me explain that statement. The most powerful tendency with anxiety is to avoid the object or situation that creates the anxiety. So, if separation from a parent causes anxiety, children cling desperately to their parents. If throwing up causes anxiety, they avoid any situation where they might throw up, including, sometimes, eating. The big problem with this is every time a child avoids something due to anxiety, the experience of anxiety gets stronger. It will be more powerful the next time they are in the situation. So, like many things in life, the easy thing to do is the wrong thing to do.

What to do? Next month I will start to address how best to manage anxiety.