Anxiety and Fear in Children

Scary Feelings – Therapy Galway


Can you remember how scary a lot of things looked when you were a child? Things like losing sight of your parents in a large shop, darkness inside and outside at night, the “bogey man”, dogs and other animals that were big enough to look you in the eye, or those monsters that lived under the bed…?
Even a happy, safe and secure childhood includes a very normal amount of fear. You may hear the word anxiety when talking about fear.
Anxiety is a normal emotion that we all experience from time to time in our daily living. It is closely related to fear, which is another normal and necessary emotion that everyone experiences. We need to be fearful of certain situations in order to protect ourselves from danger. Other words used to describe different states of fear include being frightened, scared, panicky, afraid, terrified, petrified, shocked, alarmed and horrified. It is normal to experience fear when we face an immediate danger e.g. being chased by an angry and dangerous animal.
Fear is a natural and essential part of our human make up. It helps keep us safe. Our fears lead us to naturally avoid many things that have the ability to cause us physical harm such as fire, electricity, turbulent water or savage dogs.
You can experience anxiety in your body such as the physical feelings of increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating and shaking. Anxiety is usually associated with the anticipation of fear of something happening in the future. Words used to describe different states of anxiety include worried, concerned, anxious, nervous, tense, shy and cautious. Anxiety is normal is some social situations for example doing an exam or speaking to a group of people. Anxiety helps us prepare for these difficult tasks too.

Children and anxiety

Children experience various states of fear and anxiety from the moment they are born. At times it is easy to tell if a child is anxious by their crying and clinging behaviours. Other times it is difficult to identify anxiety in children. Some children hide their anxiety because it is too difficult for them to express it. Some children turn their anxiety into anger and temper tantrums or defiant behaviours.
Most children’s fears are mild and come and go at different times. However, with some children their fear becomes so strong they may develop phobias or suffer from what is called “generalised anxiety”. In fact, research shows more than one third of children aged between 2 and 14 years of age experience some form of anxiety intense enough to interfere with their daily lives.

What causes anxiety in Children?

Some children are born with an anxious temperament and appear to be anxious in many situations. Research has shown that up to fifteen percent of infants are born with a more anxious temperament than others.
All children experience fears and worries as part of their normal development. Fear of the dark, monsters, and separation from parents, some animals and strangers are all usual ones. As children grow and develop these fears gradually change and grow into fears about social acceptance, sports and academic achievements, health and mortality and about their family.
Other causes of anxiety for children occur with the normal rough and tumble of life within a family such as the birth of a sibling, the start of preschool or primary school, moving to a new home, death of a grandparent, or family pet, being accepted by a peer group and at times trying to master a new task in or out of school can be stressful for children.
Out of the ordinary events can cause anxiety in children. Issues such as parents arguing in front of children, parental conflict and separation, illness or injury of the child or those close to the child, an unexpected death of close family members and neighbours can stress children. It can be difficult for children when they experience extended separations from parents, a road traffic accident, family violence, violence in the community, natural disasters.

How to help your child handle their anxiety? – Therapy Galway

Your expectations of your child who appears to have excessive anxiety needs to be the same as with another of your children who has a milder fear such as trying out a new game, going to a party etc. However, the pace of change with a very fearful child will be much slower. So be patient. You can help your child by breaking down the process or activity into smaller parts in order for the child to feel they can accomplish some part of it.

Build your child’s personal strengths

Praise your child when they are about to face a challenge. Try a new or brave behaviour. Some children like loud praise other like quiet moments where you can praise them. Think about what suits your child most. Give them small, easy jobs around the house or garden so they can easily accomplish them. Praise them for something that they are already good at, such as sports, music jigsaws or whatever they are able to accomplish.

Let your child learn by themselves

Try not to take over and do something for your child. Let them make mistakes and learn from them. Yes, doing something for your child will help them in the short term and perhaps make you feel good too. Doing things all the time for your child undermines them, it can lead them think you don’t trust them. When they ask a question gently ask them their opinion on the question first, let them see that they have an understanding of the issue before giving your opinion.
Working together as parents or guardians
When parents work together in an agreed way with an anxious child, it benefits the child greatly. Setting limits and boundaries with children should be consistent with both parents.

Limits and Consequences

To help develop self-confident and happy children it is important not to confuse anxiety with other types of inappropriate behaviour. It is important to set reasonable expectations for a child as well as reasonable limits for inappropriate behaviour in a loving relationship of acceptance of the child.

Trusting your child to express their own feelings

It is alright and normal for your child to experience some level of normal anxiety. Reassure them that normal anxiety is not dangerous and something that a child can cope with. Remember to reassure them that all feelings are okay and encourage them to say how they are feeling. Some emotions are difficult for children to express if they are fearful of how their parent will react and accept them if they express certain feelings. It is beneficial for you and your child to model this, so say how you feel yourself.

Passing on your fears

Be careful not to pass on all your fears to children. It is best if you present a positive or neutral description of an event. Let children know it is safe to explore. Don’t try to minimise your child’s fear by mocking or laughing at them. Laughter and humour does help us all to deal with stuff so model this yourself and let your children see you laugh at your mistakes so that they too can learn from this.