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Normal Anxiety vs. Problematic Anxiety

Janie Hortman

Thoughtful stressed young man with a mess in his headWhat can be normal anxiety in our kids and what leans towards problematic? Let’s first discuss what is normal through different developmental ages of children. This is called “normal” because as children grow, they are placed in new situations that may present new worries or concerns, but will pass once they learn to cope. It is important to remember that all children are different and can go through growth phases differently. As an infant to toddler age, normal anxiety can appear when they begin to separate from their caregivers or love ones, and when they are met with strangers. During ages 3-5, children’s imaginations are growing and so do worries about monsters, ghosts, certain animals, and the dark. With ages 6-10, social fears begin because they want to fit in with friends. They also begin learning about natural disasters and real world dangers as they begin to fear things such as hurricanes and robbers. During ages 10-13, the social status anxieties solidified as children are concerned with making and keeping friends. Normal anxieties can also include doing well in school and grades, and also sports or arts performances. These worries can be phases and fears children can grow out of as they mature.

Now what can be signs of more problematic anxiety in our children? First, when anxieties become excessive or an unreasonable response to the current stressful event, the worry is beginning to become more than a phase or regular behaviors. For example, if your child is worried that a friend is not playing tag at recess and the worry becomes that the friend no longer wants to be friends or speak to them. Secondly, if your child is in the state of worrying and resists your help to calm down or even becomes more overwhelmed when given help, this can lead to increase anxiety. Also, when your comfort and reassurance makes the situation or anxious event worse or your comfort is never enough is also problematic. For example, no matter how much you try to reassurance your child everything will be ok; they resist your comfort and become even more agitated. Thirdly, if the worry that was once focused on a specific situation begins to spread to other areas of life, that can be a sign of increase anxiety. For example, if your child was first worrying about making a good grade on a test, but soon is worrying about if they fail then the teacher will not like them, and it will effect their social status, and then they may not be able to play sports, etc. The anxiety is now spreading. Fourthly, it may also become problematic is your child avoids talking about their worries or the situation they are concerned about. For example, your child will run from the room or go silent when you begin to talk about their anxiety. Finally, when symptoms begin to interfere with your everyday living and effect how your child is functioning. This may look like your child refusing to go to school, events, or having anxious attacks several times a day or week. However, these problematic behaviors can be calmed through soothing tools and therapeutic interventions!

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