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Anxiety in Children 0-8

05.03.11

Imagine being a new parent, bringing home your little bundle of joy.  So many needs to consider, but, what about social and emotional development?  Can a little baby have anxiety?  What about anxiety later in childhood?

That little baby needs to know that the world is a safe place, and that her needs will be met.  Anxiety is based in fear, and she will have fear when her needs go unmet for too long.  She cries, whines and even screams when she has a need, and some of them are social needs.  Offering her loving touches, soft words, soft music, and a pleasant environment, while meeting her physical needs like eating, bathing, changing her diaper, and dressing will help her to calmly learn that her needs will be met.  It will meet her needs for connection, reassurance and intimacy.

At about 18 months through preschool, she will fear the “outside” world apart from her primary caregiver (usually mom).  Her anxiety is a normal stage in development, as she is learning to do things on her own.   Parents still need to be available for reassurance, connection, and providing close proximity to ensure the child’s safety.  Typically, this is the stage of Separation Anxiety, which is normal and natural for preschoolers.  The best thing a parent can do is set up a simple “good-bye routine” when leaving the child at the school, daycare, or care-givers house.  It will reassure the child that the new place is safe, the parent will return, and demonstrate to the child that the parents trusts the environment, and communicates that the child should do the same.

In elementary school, anxiety usually revolves around fears of peers, responsibilities and new levels of expectations.  Children should not be sheltered from these realities, however, neither should they be traumatized.  Most parents feel the child is being “traumatized” when they are simply displaying dislike or normal levels of fear.  WIse parents should promote the functional independence as much as possible, with chores, homework, and even contributions to the community.  However, the relational dependence should continue:  inter-dependence, being a part of a team, meeting others’ needs and empathizing with others’ feelings.

Overall, some anxiety is a normal part of child development.  Fears are natural and normal at any stage.  Wise parents neither shelter their child from all fearful situations, nor expose them to dangers and traumatize the child.  Being a good role-model, by facing one’s own fears, teaching coping skills, slowly exposing the child to the feared situation, and encouraging the child to try new things are the best ways to help a child of any age through anxiety.

Faith Gallup is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with her own private practice called Northlight Counseling, in Gurnee and Long Grove, IL.  She received her Master’s in Social Work in 1996, has been married for 19 years, and has one child.  She has been helping children and families work through anxieties for over 15 years.  For more information, call her at 847-962-5234.