Anxiety in childhood is very common. It is one of the factors that prevent a child from realizing his full potential as he grows into an adult. There are many reasons for anxiety in childhood as given below.
Parents are the vessel that holds the children inside. Any crack in the vessel opens the possibility that children may fall and meet with danger. When parents have open disagreements and fights, children get a sense of insecurity that translates into anxiety. Even in the absence of open disagreement and fights, children can sense it if the parents do not love each other. This subconscious sensing often leads them to wonder if the parents will end up divorcing, which, for the children, is their worst fears come true. They might have heard of classmates or friends who had the misfortune to go through parental divorce, and would not want it to happen to them. The fear that it may happen is a cause of anxiety for children.
Children need a certain degree of predictability and stability in their life. When the family moves house, often the child has to change schools, and this can cause at least a moderate degree of anxiety on both kids. It is most problematic for kids who are naturally introverted, and whose personalities are inclined towards anxiety and worry. With each move, the child has to face a new school environment and different rules from the previous school. These problems are particularly serious in puberty, when friends become very important. Having to make new friends is a challenge for the kid who moves frequently. All these upheavals can give rise to anxiety.
Some children ‘learn’ to be anxious from their parents. Kids learn how to deal with ambiguous situations from their parents. If parents are anxious when there is a sudden change in schedule, or when there is an unexpected knock on the door, children learn that this is how the reaction to such stimuli should be. If the parent is often anxious and fearful, children will soon determine that the world is a very unsafe and fearsome place. There is also the genetic factor: children of anxious parents are likely to develop anxiety themselves.
If children are constantly criticized for every single thing that they do less than perfectly, they are likely to grow up with anxiety. In time, such children become anxious to do anything, for fear of making a mistake. This environment of criticism can be at home or in school. Such anxiety can create a vicious cycle. The more a child is criticized, the worse he might perform, and the worse the performance is, the stronger the criticism gets. Thus the cycle continues on and on.
One of the most common triggers of school-related anxiety is bullying. Kids who are bullied can experience Social anxiety which, in severe cases, can lead them to avoid social situations altogether. A fear of being humiliated and judged negatively will haunt them often into adulthood. Children are bullied for a variety of reasons: for being un-athletic, being a slow learner, or having some disability etc.
Another common anxiety trigger is exams. Most children are anxious about exams and to an extent such anxiety is healthy, as it leads them to make sure they will do well. However, for some children, it crosses that point, and makes them so fearful of the exams that they are unable to do well. They may have butterflies in the stomach, and their mind go blank while looking at the questions.
Perfectionist parents may often have children who are afraid to make mistakes, and thus may avoid doing something altogether, anxious that they will not be able to do it well. High achieving parents usually expect their kids to do equally or better than them. Even if parents do not verbalize it explicitly, the message will get conveyed to the children in a multitude of ways, that the expectations are high. If the children think that they can never reach those expectations, anxiety can be high.
It is an old debate whether it is nature or nurture that is responsible for how a child turns out to be. The consensus so far in the scientific community has been that both play a role. A child born in a family in which parents or other relatives have anxiety, is more likely to be anxious than a child with no such family history.
According to modern science there are brain chemicals called neurotransmitters that play a role in how a person feels and acts. When some of these brain chemicals are in short supply or are not working well, anxiety can result. This is the rationale behind prescribing anti-anxiety medication to people with anxiety disorders. However, such medications are rarely used in children due to potential side effects.
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