Written by Dr. Sidney Langston
Eight-year-old Shelly is afraid to fall asleep at night because she often has nightmares. Scott has always been a happy child but is suddenly terrified of being kidnaped.
Such fears are not unusual in children. In a recent survey of 1,000 children, 90% had some specific fear they couldn't get off their minds. Forty percent of the children in another survey confessed to having many fears and worries.
Most of these concerns are not associated with a psychiatric disorder. Whether a fear is normal or abnormal is determined by the age of the child experiencing it and the duration of the fear. For example, a newborn fears loss of body support and loud noises. From age six-months to two or three years, children fear strangers. Preschool children are often fearful of animals, large objects, dark places, changes in environment, masks, "bad people," supernatural creatures and sleeping alone. School-age children may develop a reluctance to go to school, and older children worry about exams and death. Teenagers have social and sexual anxieties.
Most of these fears are transient and become a problem only if they interfere with age-appropriate activities or last more than a couple of months. Studies reveal that 8% of boys and 11% of girls have some type of clinically significant anxiety before age 18.
Separation anxiety is an example of a more serious fear which can last for several years. This is a disabling fear of being apart from one's parents and it can develop in response to such stressors as a major move or a death in the family. Children suffering from separation anxiety fear going away to camp or sleeping overnight at a friend's home. They may become clingy, follow their parents around and even try to climb into bed with them at night. They fear their parents will die and may fantasize that their parents will be kidnaped, murdered or killed in an automobile accident. If such fears aren't relieved, children will become depressed and withdrawn and lose the ability to concentrate.
What then are the roots of such fears? Research gives no clear answer. Some professionals believe that a child may have an innate temperament toward fear and anxiety, while others believe that certain fears are universal and serve as a defense mechanism. Some research indicts TV violence and heavy metal music. Another study implicates the emotional climate in the family. An overprotective or non-nurturing mother or extremely anxious parents can set their children up to be anxious. Anxiety may develop in children if their parents are in an unhappy marriage in which one parent identifies too strongly with a particular child or depends too much on their presence for support. Earnie Larsen, a highly acclaimed therapist in the Atlanta area, sums it up this way, "What we live—we learn. What we learn—we practice. What we practice—we become."
What can be done to help fearful and anxious children? If their fears are age-appropriate, realize that they will pass. Do everything you can to make the children comfortable and to keep them in touch with reality. If children are in school, make counselors and teachers aware of what is going on so that they can give appropriate support.
However, if anxiety persists, medical treatment and medication may be indicated. Teaching children relaxation techniques may prove beneficial. Another approach is desensitization, a treatment based on the premise that the best way to defeat a fear is to face it. Children are exposed to the feared object in a safe environment with reassurance and support available.
When dealing with children's fears, be sure that their feelings are taken into consideration. It helps them to know you hear them. Encourage them to become self-confident and independent by teaching them how to be assertive and how to deal with conflict. Such concepts are most effectively taught when modeled by parents. If children are in a belittling or shaming environment, that situation needs to be corrected. Also, parents need to be in agreement about discipline in the home, making sure that it is not too harsh and that it is consistent.
Keep in mind that most childhood fears will fade and the affected children will grow up to be healthy adults. If fears persist, individual, family and/or group therapy would be indicated. Left untreated, fears and anxieties may develop into childhood depression which manifests itself in biting nails, pulling out hair or eyelashes, irritability, snappishness, withdrawal, self-mutilation, excessive negativity or destructive behavior. If childhood anxieties are never resolved, children may grow up to develop agoraphobia, panic attacks or personality disorders.
Taylor, C. Barr, M.D., and Arnow, Bruce, Ph.D. (1988). The nature and treatment of anxiety disorders. New York: The Free Press.
Copyright 1993, El Rophe Center, Inc.