Raising a Healthy Child Who Suffers From Anxiety
With terrorist attacks on American soil, war on television – live and prime time – and crime part of every newscast, our post 9/11 world has become an increasingly frightening place to raise children. Today's children – and their parents – have much more to be afraid of than the monster under the bed or the goblin in the closet. In our information society, so much of the news is frightening that parents are worried, and unfortunately, they transmit their fears to their children.
Children can't escape this atmosphere of fear. School is no longer a safe place. At inner-city schools metal detectors and weapons searches are standard issue. And even in quiet suburbs, violence has become almost commonplace.
The result of these current events is that children and parents in the United States are experiencing anxiety in greater numbers today than ever before, drawing attention to anxiety and expanding the need for resources that can prevent serious anxiety problems requiring long-term treatment.
The earlier parents begin to recognize and address anxiety problems in their children, the better. If you can deal with your child's anxieties at a very young age, you can prevent more serious problems that could require long-term professional help.
An Increase in Anxiety
An abundance of bad news is just part of the reason why anxiety in children is more prevalent today than ever before. Estimates of the prevalence of anxiety in children vary greatly, with some studies suggesting 1 to 2 percent of children suffer from anxiety and others indicating as many as 16 percent of children are anxious. Following an incident like the terrorist attacks of 9/11, those numbers go up even higher.
Today, researchers theorize that anxiety, which is a constant troubled state of mind that is to some degree debilitating, is caused either by a single serious traumatic event in one's life or by a series of smaller traumas or stresses. Certainly the reality of today's world, especially in urban areas, feeds both of these theories. Whether a single event, a series of stresses or both cause anxiety, our world offers plenty of cause for anxiety.
With crime leading the evening news every night, many children are afraid of what might happen to them. Some kids may begin to withdraw from situations they believe are dangerous after witnessing them on television. They may even refuse to leave home or go to school. Unfortunately, you can't honestly tell children that nothing is going to happen to them, because the truth is that our streets and cities are dangerous. What you can do, though, if their anxiety becomes crippling, is to help them regain some sense of control.
Teach them how to dial 911, how to use the security system and how to lock the doors. Let them take karate or other self-defense courses that may ease their anxiety and help them feel more powerful over their environment. Make sure you don't leave them alone or put them in situations where they feel vulnerable.
Teach them basic safety about staying in groups at the mall and not staying out after dark. Teach them how to scream – usually not a tough task for small children – and when to scream or run. Get to know your neighbors so that your child will feel comfortable calling for help. All of these tools will help your child feel less anxious about crime in our midst.
One little girl I helped was traumatized after an attempted break-in at her home. Her father was out of town, and the 6-year-old girl, who was in her bedroom upstairs, heard someone trying to break in downstairs. She alerted her mother, who, after calling 911, herded the whole family into a room to wait for the police. Although the police got there in time and the break-in was stopped before anything happened, the little girl was afraid to go to bed at night for two years afterward. Each night she had to check and recheck to make sure every door was locked and that the alarm system was on and working properly.
Kids who have had experiences with crime in their homes often feel especially vulnerable at night. It is wise, at first, to let them walk around and check the doors and windows and alarm system or to sit with them while they are getting relaxed and preparing for sleep or to leave a light on in their room or in the hall. But for this to be necessary two years after the event is not normal.
I talked with this little girl about what was real and what was imaginary. We talked about trusting, and I planted the idea that once she checked the locks and doors, she had to trust that everything was OK. Then we talked about what she knew to be true: that dialing 911 had worked for her. The police got to her house and nothing bad happened. She was afraid more of what could have happened than of something real that did happen. These discussions seemed to give her a feeling of power and control again. After three or four visits, her feelings of anxiety were greatly diminished.
Support After a Disaster
If your child does experience a disaster at home or at school or in the neighborhood, talk about it and talk about it and talk about it. If what happened affected your child's entire class at school or a group of friends, get them together as a group to talk so that they know they're not alone when they have these fearful feelings.
If your child is very young when he or she is traumatized, be sure to talk about the event from time to time. Your child's brain is in a continuous state of maturation, so he or she will view the situation differently at different ages and will gradually understand various concepts from the black and white to the abstract. At each stage of development, your child will have different questions and different fears that need to be addressed.
Remember, if you're not able to reduce your child's anxiety – whatever the source – by talking with her, seek a professional for assistance. You are not inadequate if you make the same comments a professional might make and your child still has trouble. Sometimes, it just takes an outside, impartial source to help your child see past the anxiety.