Over the last few years there has been a marked increase in parents and schools reporting anxiety as a concern for children of all ages. In extreme cases this may lead to an intervention or referral to support services such as CAMHS but for the majority it is simply a case of learning to manage their feelings rather than letting the feelings manage their choices.
Many parents, understandably, seek to avoid the things that create anxiety responses in their child which undoubtedly reduces stress in the short term. However this does not usually lead to a reduction in anxiety and anxiety can increase as the child grows older leading to a family living with a range of restrictions on every-day life such as food, clothing, areas of the house, outside spaces and new experiences, people or places. Whilst avoiding tantrums with a three-year-old is sometimes the best thing to do, too much avoidance may eventually lead to a child that no longer feels ‘safe’ going about normal childhood pursuits and activities, eating everyday foods and mixing with others.
As well as a clear rise in childhood anxiety there has also been a marked corresponding rise in parental anxiety, where children are no longer allowed out of a parent’s sight (and control) unless they have been passed to a respected and usually professional adult to be supervised equally closely. The increase of ‘overparenting’ or helicopter parenting as it has been called results in many children feeling at risk when in everyday situations as their hyper vigilant adult carers stress ‘danger’ and ‘safety’ at every turn. Ironically the greatest dangers to wellbeing and safety for children and young people are almost certainly within the home not outside of it. The gadgets parents use to amuse, entertain and otherwise keep their children quiet and ‘safe’ indoors are allowing every harmful influence in the entire world to have potential access to them rather than those posed by their locale.
By being kept away from all potential perceived risks from climbing trees to going to the corner shop alone children are becoming afraid of almost everything new or outside their homes.
One of the many areas of anxiety that is more noticeable in today’s children is social anxiety. Many children feel uncomfortable with others or worry about what others will think of them or say about them when they are not there. This can be exacerbated by the use of social media by children as young as 7 where everyone talks about each other frequently with lots of blocking and unblocking behaviour to increase control over others or induce a fear of isolation from the group. Most social media sites come with age restrictions designed around the maturity and development of a child or young person, not their keyboard skills, but these are disregarded by many parents. A plucky few do put their foot down and restrict the free use of gadgets, provide children with basic rather than smart phones and monitor all online activity to ensure nothing age restricted or inappropriate is accessed but these are in the minority and some such parents have even received critical emails or rude comments from other parents for carrying out such measures.
Social skills don’t just grow with age, they need to be learnt by real world interaction where the consequences of actions and choices are observed and reflected upon. The small child who hits out at another for taking a valued toy learns by the disapproval of others and the reaction of the other child what the consequences of their actions are. The child that continues to act in unkind ways may also experience a degree of isolation as others chose to play elsewhere and may need to adapt their behaviour if they want to be included in the group. In large and small interactions with others and by observing the interactions of their peers and (particularly) older siblings or siblings of their peer group they learn over time how and why some behaviour is more desirable to themselves and others.
These days adults tend to have a ‘if someone does something you don’t like come and tell me or your teacher’ approach to parenting which disempowers the child from acting themselves and consequently from learning how to manage the behaviour of others.
It is easy to understand how embarrassed a parent may feel if their child is the only one behaving ‘naturally’ in a group but constantly telling children how they should behave in social situations and watching over them in order to direct their movements and play is likely to result in a degree of inadequacy and anxiety when they reach the age of 7-8, the time when social relationships and creating alliances become noticeably more important to children.
Many parents want to maintain their central role in their child’s life by being their ‘friend’ and confidante during the preteen years which again can induce or exacerbate anxiety. As adults use completely different areas of the brain and different cognitive processes to manage their interactions with others, an adult giving a child adult advice or instruction on managing their relationships and friendship issues can be unhelpful. Such strategies and instructions seldom work with children – the child who tries to reason with a stubborn friend may well feel disempowered and ineffective when their adult style strategy doesn’t work. Children lack an adult’s overview and, at least when young, are inclined to think that parents always know best which may mean they see any unsuccessful attempt at managing a situation the way they were told as a fault in themselves, in their execution of the response rather than bad advice. Feelings of inadequacy, of not being able to ‘do friendship’ properly may lead to an anxiety when faced with social situations. It is not uncommon for the parent of a child experiencing such anxiety to begin to manage the child’s friendships themselves with the – intention of course of being helpful. Such micromanagement de-skills the child even further and a spiral of anxiety and disempowerment grows. I have even met parents who maintain email contact with the parents of their children’s friends through an online group and report on a daily basis any problems or behavioural issues their child has reported about their friends. Exposing behaviour to adult group scrutiny in this way may lead parents themselves to become highly anxious about their child’s behaviour and nothing increases child anxiety around an area of life more than a highly anxious and hypervigilant adult.
There are many other forms of anxiety being experienced by children, some of the most common are about food – only eating certain foods and being unwilling to change, develop or adapt eating habits. This often seems to take the form of a colour or type of food being deemed desirable whilst other types or colours are rejected. It is usual for a child to have certain preferences, particularly for many of the things we chose to restrict such as sweet, starchy and fatty foods. To some degree we are all hard wired to enjoy these foods, particularly during the vulnerable childhood years, as high calorie foods spelt survival to our ancestors and still do today in parts of the world experiencing food shortage for any natural or human made reason. Adults restrict the intake of these foods for reasons a child cannot understand and all the explanations in the world will not stop a young child eating their desired treats. Children today are allowed far greater freedom of choice in all things which is partly responsible for the changes in average body weight and body fat. The dramatic rise in childhood obesity over the last decade is due to many other reasons too including the greater isolation of children who must organise occasional ‘play dates’ rather than just knock on someone’s door or play in communal open spaces, the rise in gadgets as a means to keep children occupied and ‘safe’ indoors and the time poverty of many parents who cannot be outdoors playing and exercising naturally with their child as previous generations may have been. As well as the rise in obesity we are seeing a rise in children anxious about their body image where messages of fat=bad and restricting food=good have had a serious consequence. Eating disorders are now affecting more younger children than ever before, with compulsive eating, food refusal and all forms of food related anxiety on the increase. It is often difficult for parents and professionals working with children to strike a balance between healthy eating messages and fear of weight gain.
Many modern children are being raised to have a greater suspicion or fear of strangers and those they don’t know these days which is resulting in another common form of anxiety where even being alone in a room can create fear responses. Fear of abduction or harm can get out of hand and lead to children being fearful of all new places, people and experiences without having any idea why they feel afraid. Teaching children to fear strangers is no longer considered a suitable response to child protection, more modern approaches focus on encouraging children to minimise risk and to make appropriate responses such as calling for help or telling an adult if anyone asks them to keep something secret etc. Such responses empower a child rather than create fear, particularly as we know that strangers are not the predominant threat to children, the huge majority of children who experience abuse or harm do so at the hands of someone they know and frequently a from family member.
As the current generation of children and young people grow older many will eventually become less anxious as they begin to master independent life for themselves one step at a time but the concern must always be about their own approach to parenting when their time comes. Of course it is often the way that new parents reject the parenting style they grew up under – so let’s all hope the new generation in waiting will bring back freedom, independence and learning from doing in a way they could not learn themselves.