Worries and fears are the main psychological concern that dominates the early childhood years. From fears of the dark, of spiders and other creepy crawlies or imaginary monsters under the bed or in the ‘spooky’ laundry, to storms, separation from parents and big, boisterous dogs at the park.
For the most part, these worries are typical as children develop. The instinctual panic that surfaces when a 2 year old hears a loud bang outside or is placed on Santa’s knee, when a 3 year old wakes alone in their room at night, or when a 4 year old loses track of their parent in a crowd, all occur at key stages to assist children to be aware of their surroundings and begin to make judgements about what is safe and what is not. Children will look to their parent to assess what the parent’s reaction is to get a sense of how worried they should themselves be – which is entirely adaptive and healthy.
These early life situations are rehearsals for working out what is a real danger and what is not. From an evolutionary perspective, this was incredibly important before people moved to living in modern homes with security locks and screens, when the ability to fight, flight (flee) or freeze may have been the only way to escape a predator.
Anxiety is a biologically driven emotion, aimed at keeping us safe. For children, anxiety is aimed to alert them quickly to potential dangers including by being in tune with changes in their parent’s behaviour, and to seek out the safety of their caregivers when possible.
Anxiety is normal and healthy in small doses, and it generally passes with reassurance from caregivers, practice being brave around ‘typical’ worry triggers and graduating to the next developmental phase. In fact, if children go through their early childhood years without any worries about the world, this may prevent them from building the skills needed to manage when something does frighten them.
Despite anxiety being imperative for survival, sometimes it goes wrong. It is very common for anxiety to take a hold on children and for them to worry too much, and for the anxious behaviours to become more frequent and ‘spread’ either in how big the reactions become, or to more and more situations. It’s as if the safety alarm has gone off but become stuck.
It’s not always entirely clear why this happens, although nature and nurture likely both contribute. Caregiver reactions and role modelling also have an important role to play.
The good news is that the vast majority of early life worry can be supported to shrink very successfully by following a few relatively simple guidelines:
- Be mindful to remain patient with your child – if they are avoiding a situation, clinging, crying or being demanding in the face of panic, remember that this is NOT misbehaviour. It’s an adrenalin flood aimed at activating your child to run, hide, or fight off a threat. They are in self-preservation mode and no longer have conscious control over their behaviour.
- Once they have a safe adult by their side, the child can be coached into taking some slow breaths. Breathing in slowly and then breathing out slowly is the key. This is a body signal to the brain that there isn’t a real danger. It can help if you do the same thing with your breathing and show them how. It will make it easier for your child to tune into the breath if they can hear it from you. Prompt them to imagine smelling something deeply under their nose (you could pretend to hold a flower or a cupcake), and have them imagine blowing out candles on a cake in front of their mouth (lots of candles… ie., “you’ve almost got them all, a few more.. keep going!”).
- Remind them they are safe and encourage them to state positive affirmations out loud. For instance, you say first “it is a really loud noise/ dark room/ big dog, but it can’t hurt me”. Then invite them to say the same thing. Gentle praise goes a long way here, then add a little more by saying something like “you’ve got this babe, mummy is with you, take a big breath and how about we try walking past there together?”. Invite (not force) them to say this too.
- If your child needs more support having the panic reaction pass, you can try inviting them to focus on something else in their environment – such as a different sound, the colour of nearby flowers (“how many are there?”, “what colour is that?”), asking if they can see something that is a circle, square, blue, pink and so on. This engages their ‘thinking brain’ and sends a signal to the feeling brain that it isn’t needed.
- Check your own behaviour and consider the messages you’re sending. Over-protective family members can accidentally reinforce children’s fears that the world is a dangerous place by shielding them completely from the perceived danger. This can also send the message to children that they can’t do anything without the adult taking over. If you’re prone to jumping in quickly, try to take a pause before you react. It can be upsetting to see your child distressed. However, distress is not the same thing as being unsafe. If they are genuinely unsafe, then you must respond quickly. But if the danger is inflated in their mind, then realising themselves what is dangerous and what is not is an important step in building resilience.
Another great strategy to teach kids about what to do about worry, is for you to model to them helpful strategies to combat worry at other times when they are calm. For instance, if you have to do something at work that day that is stressful or you are about to do something anxiety provoking like drive in busy traffic or tell a waiter the order was wrong, saying your self-talk out loud shows them the process, rather than just telling them. Firstly, admin you are anxious! Then describe out loud as if speaking to yourself what you are going to do in order to cope with the situation. For example, “I’m a bit nervous about speaking to the waiter, but if I take some slow breaths and use my calm voice, I think I’ll be ok.” Afterwards you can also add “well I’m glad that is done now, but I think I handled that ok, what do you think?”. And to top it off, you can add “I think it will be easier next time I need to something like that now I’ve had some practice”.
What to do if the anxiety doesn’t start to reduce
If despite all of your efforts in supporting your child the anxious behaviours continue or escalate, getting worse over time rather than better, then it would be recommended that you consider seeing your GP or a Psychologist for advice.
Emma Langham is a Clinical Psychologist and Director of The Jacaranda Centre which is a child focused psychology practice in Cardiff, Lake Macquarie.
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