When is Anxiety Normal in Children? When Should You Get Help?
Sometimes, along the way, parents worry whether their youngster’s worries are just a passing dark cloud or something they should act upon.
It can be hard to know. Moms and Dads don’t want to overreact to their child’s emotional state, which can change like the weather in Washington. On the other hand, underreacting can be a mistake too! OMG! What’s a parent to do?
Many childhood concerns are developmental. It’s quite normal for young children (1-4 years old) to have periods where they may become very distressed when their parent leaves, or when they are dropped off somewhere.
The intensity of their reaction can be upsetting. Sometimes these episodes can be exacerbated by lack of parental consistency, a sudden disappearance of a parent (illness, long business trip, etc.), a geographic move, fatigue, or tension on the home front. These abrupt events can set off a spell of separation anxiety. What might be just a passing rain shower turns into a mighty thunderstorm!
Like many childhood behavioral storms, this too will pass. It’s important not to make too much fuss over their behavior. Gentle reassurance but firm limits are required. Don’t give in to their demands! I remember when my kids went to kindergarten (they had been in pre-school from an early age) and didn’t understand why so many children were crying when their moms dropped them off! Kindergarten and first grade teachers shoo the parents away. They know that once they leave, the kids will quickly settle down. There are also periods of “developmental instability” when children are incorporating new skills, abilities, and capacities. These periods can result in an outbreak of troublesome behavior. Ages three, six, nine, and early adolescence can be unstable times for children. The behavioral lightening during these ages can come and go quickly, and without much warning.
If you give into your child’s demands that you stay with them, you may be reinforcing their fear of separation. After all, maybe you’re sticking around for a good reason! Maybe there is something to be afraid of after all.
Sometimes, these episodes of anxiety can morph into full-fledged phobias. Fear of the dark, going to sleep, being alone at all, or other specific fears (My oldest daughter went through a phase where she cried whenever she saw a clown. My youngest daughter was fearful of dogs for several months). Generally, if parents don’t make too much of these fears, they will fade away on their own.
Parents should be concerned when these fears intensify, last more than a couple of months at the longest, and begin to interfere with normal functioning. Generally, in the early stages of these fears, child health care providers will tell you “not to worry” and “this too will pass”. Ninety percent of the time they are right! But sometimes, these concerns merit further evaluation. This can be a sign that your youngster is absorbing other family concerns (financial problems, marital problems, etc.). Children are emotional sponges. They soak up everything around them—positive or negative.
If their anxieties persist, consult with a child mental health provider. They can listen to your story, eyeball your child, and tell you whether some further help is required. Frequently, we will tell you “wait a little longer and don’t react strongly to her behavior”. But other times, we will recommend some short-term therapy, depending on the nature of the problem.
Some hints for separation anxiety:
- Give your young child lots of opportunities to be with other caregivers for short periods of time. Help them get used to leave-taking.
- Develop a goodbye ritual. A hug, a kiss, a familiar line, a song, and a pat on the back. Rituals are familiar and reassuring.
- Leave without much fanfare. Staying calm is very important. Remember your child will absorb your emotional state.
How have you handled these concerns with your child?