Everyone, from the youngest child to the oldest adult, experiences anxieties and fears at one time or another. Feeling anxious in a particularly uncomfortable situation never feels very good. However, with kids, such feelings are not only normal, they're also necessary. Dealing with anxieties can prepare young people to handle the unsettling experiences and challenging situations of life.
Anxiety is defined as "apprehension without apparent cause." It usually occurs when there's no immediate threat to a person's safety or well-being, but the threat feels real.
Anxiety makes someone want to escape the situation — fast. The heart beats quickly, the body might begin to perspire, and "butterflies" in the stomach soon follow. However, a little bit of anxiety can actually help people stay alert and focused.
Having fears or anxieties about certain things can also be helpful because it makes kids behave in a safe way. For example, a kid with a fear of fire would avoid playing with matches.
The nature of anxieties and fears change as kids grow and develop:
As kids grow, one fear may disappear or replace another. For example, a child who couldn't sleep with the light off at age 5 may enjoy a ghost story at a slumber party years later. And some fears may extend only to one particular kind of stimulus. In other words, a child may want to pet a lion at the zoo but wouldn't dream of going near the neighbor's dog.
Typical childhood fears change with age. They include fear of strangers, heights, darkness, animals, blood, insects, and being left alone. Kids often learn to fear a specific object or situation after having an unpleasant experience, such as a dog bite or an accident.
Separation anxiety is common when young children are starting school, whereas adolescents may experience anxiety related to social acceptance and academic achievement.
If anxious feelings persist, they can take a toll on a child's sense of well-being. The anxiety associated with social avoidance can have long-term effects. For example, a child with fear of being rejected can fail to learn important social skills, causing social isolation.
Many adults are tormented by fears that stem from childhood experiences. An adult's fear of public speaking may be the result of embarrassment in front of peers many years before. It's important for parents to recognize and identify the signs and symptoms of kids' anxieties so that fears don't get in the way of everyday life.
Some signs that a child may be anxious about something may include:
Apart from these signs, parents can usually tell when their child is feeling excessively uneasy about something. Lending a sympathetic ear is always helpful, and sometimes just talking about the fear can help a child move beyond it.
When anxieties and fears persist, problems can arise. As much as a parent hopes the child will grow out of it, sometimes the opposite occurs, and the cause of the anxiety looms larger and becomes more prevalent. The anxiety becomes a phobia, or a fear that's extreme, severe, and persistent.
A phobia can be very difficult to tolerate, both for kids and those around them, especially if the anxiety-producing stimulus (whatever is causing the anxiety) is hard to avoid (e.g., thunderstorms).
"Real" phobias are one of the top reasons kids are referred to mental health professionals. But the good news is that unless the phobia hinders the everyday ability to function, the child sometimes won't need treatment by a professional because, in time, the phobia will be resolved.
Try to answer the following questions honestly:
Is your child's fear and behavior related to it typical for your child's age? If the answer to this question is yes, it's a good bet that your child's fears will resolve before they become a serious cause for concern. This isn't to say that the anxiety should be discounted or ignored; rather, it should be considered as a factor in your child's normal development.
Many kids experience age-appropriate fears, such as being afraid of the dark. Most, with some reassurance and perhaps a nightlight, will overcome or outgrow it. However, if they continue to have trouble or there's anxiety about other things, the intervention may have to be more intensive.
What are the symptoms of the fear and how do they affect your child's personal, social, and academic functioning? If symptoms can be identified and considered in light of your child's everyday activities, adjustments can be made to alleviate some of the stress factors.
Does the fear seem unreasonable in relation to the reality of the situation; could it be a sign of a more serious problem? If your child's fear seems out of proportion to the cause of the stress, this may signal the need to seek outside help, such as a counselor, psychiatrist, or psychologist.
Parents should look for patterns. If an isolated incident is resolved, don't make it more significant than it is. But if a pattern emerges that's persistent or pervasive, you should take action. If you don't, the phobia is likely to continue to affect your child.
Contact your doctor and/or a mental health professional who has expertise in working with kids and adolescents.
Parents can help kids develop the skills and confidence to overcome fears so that they don't evolve into phobic reactions.
To help your child deal with fears and anxieties:
The key to resolving fears and anxieties is to overcome them. Using these suggestions, you can help your child better cope with life's situations.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: July 2013
|National Mental Health Association (NMHA) NMHA works to improve the mental health of all Americans through advocacy, education, research, and service.|
|American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) AACAP offers up-to-date information on child and adolescent development and issues.|
|American Psychological Association (APA) The APA provides information and education about a variety of mental health issues for people of all ages.|
|Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) The ADAA promotes the prevention and cure of anxiety disorders and works to improve the lives of all people who have them.|
|Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS) CMHS is a federal agency that provides information about mental health to users of mental health services, their families, the general public, policy makers, providers, and the media.|
|Kids Talk About: Feeling Scared All kids feel scared once in a while. Find out what frightens them in this article for kids.|
|Talking About Your Feelings Just talking about your feelings can make you feel better.|
|Anxiety Disorders Anxiety is a natural part of life, and most of us experience it from time to time. But for some people, anxiety can be extreme.|
|Childhood Stress Being a kid doesn't always mean being carefree - even the youngest tots worry. Find out what stresses kids out and how to help them cope.|
|Anxiety Disorders Anxiety is a normal part of growing up, and all kids experience it. But when it becomes extreme, it can interfere with a child's overall happiness.|
|Going to a Psychologist, Psychiatrist, or Therapist What's it like to go to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist? Find out in this article for kids.|
|Separation Anxiety Teary and tantrum-filled goodbyes are common with separation anxiety, which is a perfectly normal part of childhood development.|
|Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Everyone feels anxiety, fear, or worry at some time - it's normal to worry about school, your friends, your appearance, and tons of other stuff. But for teens with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), these feelings are taken to extremes.|
|Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder All kids have worries and doubts. But some have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in which their worries compel them to behave in certain ways over and over again.|
|Relax & Unwind Center When life throws problems your way, learn how to stay calm, de-stress, and solve problems.|
|Butterflies in the Stomach Have you ever wondered what the expression "butterflies in the stomach" means? Find out.|
|Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Someone might say you're obsessed with soccer or something else that you really like, but when someone has a true obsession, it isn't any fun. Find out more about obsessive-compulsive disorder in this article for kids.|
|The Story on Stress Stress happens when you are worried or uncomfortable about something. You may feel angry, frustrated, scared, or afraid. Our article for kids will help you manage stress.|
|Social Phobia It's natural to feel self-conscious, nervous, or shy sometimes. But for some people, the anxiety that goes with feeling shy or self-conscious can be extreme, and it can take over their lives. Get the facts on social phobia here.|
|When Tests Make You Nervous Some people get nervous and worried when they take tests, even if they studied. If that's you, read this article to find out how to stay cool at school when it's time to take a test.|
|Anxiety: Rachel's Story Rachel developed an anxiety disorder during her junior and year of high school. Today she's in college and enjoying life. Read her story.|
|Phobias A phobia is strong fear of something. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|5 Ways to Deal With Anxiety We all get worried or nervous about things. Here are 5 ways to control anxiety.|
|Being Afraid Have you ever been afraid? Everyone gets scared sometimes. Find out more about fear in this article for kids.|
|Test Anxiety Everyone feels a little nervous and stressed before a test. And a touch of nervous anticipation can actually help keep you at peak performance. But for some people, this normal anxiety is more intense.|
|Helping Kids Cope With Stress Stress from things like school and social situations can feel overwhelming for kids. But by teaching healthy coping strategies, you'll prepare your kids to manage stress.|
|Helping Kids Handle Worry All kids to worry at times, and some may worry more than others. But parents can help kids manage worry and tackle everyday problems with ease. Find out how.|
|5 Ways to Beat Pre-performance Nerves Stressed out about speaking or performing in front of people? These tips can help you cope.|
|Fears and Phobias Fear is a normal human reaction that protects us by signaling danger and preparing us to deal with it. Get the facts about fears and phobias and what causes them.|
|Finding Low-Cost Mental Health Care If you need mental health care but don't think you can afford it, you're not alone. Get tips on finding low-cost or free mental health care in this article for teens.|
|Going to a Therapist Getting help with emotions or stress is the same as getting help with a medical problem like asthma or diabetes. This article explains how therapy works and how it can help with problems.|
|How Can I Stop Cutting? If you've been cutting and you want to stop, here are some approaches that might help you.|
|About Stressful Feelings Negative emotions are impossible to avoid and everyone feels them from time to time. They may be difficult, but they don't have to be stressful. Find out how to deal with stressful feelings.|
|Stress & Coping Center Visit our stress and coping center for advice on how to handle stress, including different stressful situations.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.