Tune in to Childhood Anxieties
As adults we readily accept the fact that young children have all sorts of anxieties. Something my daughter, now a teacher, said to me the other day reminded me how easy it is to pass over the intensity, distress and duration some of these anxieties can cause.
We were talking about childhood anxieties in the context of her work. At some point my daughter reminded me about a doll she had as a child that scared the life out of her. Well, I couldn't recall it at all, despite her graphic attempts to jog my memory. But the point of all this was the fear and anxiety she ascribed to it. Every night, she told me, she would talk to the doll in the hope it would be her friend. Then she would position it at a distance from her bed, but in a place where she could keep an eye on it. When I asked why she simply didn't throw it away, or tell us, she explained her concerns that it would get angry and would come and get her.
Some fears we get to know about while others are tucked away in some private world. Looking back we had always regarded our daughter as cautious; inclined to observe first and then get involved. The root of this behavior would have been mild anxiety and therefore no different to most other children. As for the doll incident, my wife and I had been completely oblivious to the fact for nearly 20 years. None of us know where the doll ended up!
The anxieties many children face are similar to those of adults but the intensity is sometimes heightened by fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. The interface between reality and fantasy can also be quite blurry and imaginations run riot.
When children get anxious they tend to explain their symptoms through physical upsets (stomach pains, headaches, feeling sick, general illness) or they may use the toilet more, appear more fidgety, tense and vigilant. They may become tearful, clingy, complain of bad dreams and not sleep well. For a parent it can be a confusing and worrying time but there are a few things that can help.
It may sound obvious but it's always worth remembering that very young children won't have the vocabulary or the conceptual development to explain their strong feelings. They may talk about Teddy feeling unhappy, they may invent stories as a means to convey feelings, or they may withdraw into themselves. They may ask a question then need time to process the answer before they ask another. Some children can gently be drawn out as to their anxieties and others need a little more time.
Like many adults children prefer routine and predictability. They also need structure, clear boundaries and an ongoing sense of security from those closest to them. This is especially important for very young children where separation anxiety is an issue.
Sudden and unexpected change, such as parental separation, bereavement or serious illness, can be baffling and anxiety producing for children, more so if they are excluded from all explanation and simply told to go to their room. Many libraries have books for children relating to such topics and they can provide a useful focus for parent and child to address the issue. Children over the age of five tend to have a slightly better grasp on certain issues, so a patient adult who is prepared to listen and explain may be all that is required.
Anxiety often runs in families so a point to check is whether a child is picking up your own anxiety. Children may need extra support if close family members are going through a difficult patch themselves.
Any incident that can affect an adult can affect a child. All those moments of social anxiety, tension or injustice, the sense of being picked on or misunderstood, the insecurities that can follow a burglary or a natural disaster, are all grist to the mill. We can help children to understand and cope better by tuning into to their world. It may have been a while since you were a child, but you'll still have those memories!