Sunday, April 10, 2011

Childhood anxiety

Childhood anxiety and regression

Anxiety is defined as "apprehension without apparent cause." When a child feels scared or threatened, when in fact there's no immediate threat to a person's safety or well being.
Anxiety makes someones heart beat quickly, the child may sweat, and feel "butterflies" in the stomach. However, all children feel a bit of anxiety on a regular basis.  When confronted with new situations and when their vivid imaginations create misconception about events.  This is typical in the hospital.  For example, when a child hears they are going to get a CAT Scan, and vividly imagine a cat or kitty being involved somehow. 
Anxiety is not always a bad thing.  Having some fears or anxieties about certain things can also be helpful because it makes kids act in a safe way. For example, a toddler with a fear of fire or being burned would avoid items that are "HOT" and would certainly avoid playing with matches.
The nature of anxieties and fears change as kids grow and develop:
  • Babies experience stranger anxiety, clinging to parents when confronted by people they don't recognize.
  • Toddlers around 10 to 18 months old experience separation anxiety, becoming emotionally distressed when one or both parents leave.
  • Kids ages 4 through 6 have anxiety about things that aren't based in reality, such as fears of monsters and ghosts.
  • Kids ages 7 through 12 often have fears that reflect real circumstances that may happen to them, such as bodily injury and natural disaster.
As kids grow, one fear may disappear or replace another.  BUT, when a child faces a major life change, or a trauma (such as a hospitalization or illness), regression can occur.  And suddenly your child, who has slept alone in the dark for years, is now afraid of the dark and ends up in your bed every night. It is important to remember that regression is normal when children face a disruption in their normal daily lives and routines.  By disruptions, I mean situations where a child feels a loss of control, when a child or his/her parent becomes ill or hospitalized, if a family member dies or has been involved in a tragedy, and/or a parents divorce.  Parenting a child who shows signs of regression is sometimes confusing and tricky.  Many parents wonder how or what to do to help their child through.  Say your 7 year old shows signs of regression after the lengthy hospitalization of his mother.  After 4 plus years of success in toileting, he is wetting the bed at night.  Do you punish your child or belittle? NO.  Sympathize with the child.  Address what is going on in the child's life. Provide a safe and open place for them to ask questions (by showing them they can ask anything or say whatever they are feeling without being belittled or punished).  Give them opportunity to talk and vent.  AND (although it will be painful I know)  get up with your child and change the sheets and help them into clean PJ's.  Have the child walk the dirty PJ's and sheets down to the wash machine and start a wash.   This conveys, I support you and am here to help you, but it is not ok to wet the bed or sleep in dirty sheets or PJs.  They check in with the child before you go to bed.  Get them up to use the bathroom and monitor late drinks.  Help them with success in overcoming their regression.  If you show support and love, and not punish,  the child should come out of their regression in a few weeks.  If it lasts longer that a month or so, you may consider seeking some professional support.

adapted from Many Anxieties and Fears are Normal at

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