Anxiety in children: a cause for concern?
Is your child a worrywart? Don't you worry – anxiety in children normally begins around the age of three, but this is often a sign of healthy development. At this age, a child begins to develop his sense of imagination, and with that sense of imagination comes an awareness of real or imagined fears.
For a young child who cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, these fears can be overwhelming. So it's up to you to help him deal with them. Be sure to talk often with your child and ask him to share his feelings. Recognize that young children do not innately know how to express their feelings in words – they cry when they're anxious or sad or hungry or angry – so you'll have to help him along as he grows up.
What can you do to help?
Suggested reading for primary school-age children: Kevin Henkes' Wemberly Worried, a funny and touching story of a young girl mouse who overcomes her worries when she meets a friend with whom she can share her feelings.
Finding the words to describe her feelings
A few simple and fun exercises will help your child as he develops. Ask him questions and give him the vocabulary to use, as well as the facial expressions and mannerisms that indicate feelings: Are you happy (smile)? Are you sad (frown)? Are you scared (grimace and big eyes)?
Give him examples to start him off: "Mummy is happy because you gave me a hug, and I love getting hugs" or "Mummy is afraid of lizards because I think they're going to jump on me!" or "Daddy gets frustrated when he cannot find his keys because he will be late for work!"
The expressions will not only help him use non–verbal cues to relate his feelings, but he will also be able to read others' feelings as he gets older, an important part of learning empathy. And when he begins to speak, he will be armed with the words to describe his feelings.
Oftentimes youngsters don't know exactly why they are anxious. If this is the case with your child, just acknowledge his fears and reassure him that you are there for him and will take care of him and protect him from harm.
If he is able to express what he is anxious about, don't dismiss his fears as invalid ("Don't be silly. There's nothing to be scared about!") but acknowledge them and explain instead: "I know you"re afraid of monsters under your bed, but I checked and there are none there." In rare cases, childhood anxiety reaches a level that needs special attention – and in these cases, parents should consult their family doctor for advice. But in most instances, children just need their parents' support and reassurance.