Are you a parent struggling with your child’s anxiety? Have you noticed that your efforts to calm your child down, only make it worse? Are you at your wits’ end trying to help your child, and are really wondering, what causes anxiety disorders to develop in children in the first place?
The most important piece of information to know is that contrary to popular belief, anxiety is not caused by genetics or biology, you are not born with it! What I’m telling you is actually fantastic news, because if I were to tell you that it is all caused by genetics, there would be nothing you could do to prevent it and little you could do to cure it, as you can’t change a child’s genetics! But instead I’m telling you that anxiety is created when you have a child with loving, dedicated, well-intentioned parents who unfortunately made a few minor mistakes in Parenting, and those mistakes caused stress to their child. Coupled with that you have a child who was probably born with a sensitive temperament, and combined with those stressors, anxiety was generated. Therefore since the problem was caused mostly by forces in the environment, there is a great solution: changing the environment through psychotherapy such as Play Therapy and especially by tuning up your parenting. That’s the amazing truth, we as parents are so powerful and influential regarding our children, that simply adopting a healthier parenting attitude can completely resolve the problem! I’ve seen it happen many times! So let’s go over what causes anxiety disorders to develop in children, and the 7 things you can do to prevent them.
1. Projecting an anxious attitude and example
Children are like sponges and mirrors, they absorb everything we give to them, and reflect everything we display towards them. The fact is, many parents of anxious children are themselves anxious or more importantly, display or express anxiety in front of their child. For example the parent might often be in a rush or expressing worry about things, such as, “Hurry or we’re going to be late!” and “Oh no, look what happened, what are we going to do now!” and “I’m so worried something bad might happen to you!” Comments such as these don’t seem like a big deal to us adults, because we have the wisdom and maturity to put them into perspective, but children cannot do so! They are totally overwhelmed and stressed out by such off-hand comments. They think, “Oh no, my parent, who is my rock and security source, is worried and not confident. This is really scary! If she can’t handle the situation well, where does that leave me? Her anxiety tells me that something is terribly wrong right now and I should be anxious as well!” We have to remember how small, powerless and vulnerable children are and feel! Even minor stressors such as expressed anxiety totally overwhelms them.
I had an 8-year old client once with significant anxiety and self-imposed pressure,
and his mother was extremely puzzled and clueless as to what to do. I asked her about the atmosphere in her home, and she reported that she is often in a rush especially in the morning and on the way to appointments, and she is constantly telling her child to be careful about this and to worry about that, in a sincere desire to protect him. After getting to know her for a few sessions, I helped her realize that she herself was contributing significantly to her son’s anxiety. She was totally blown away! “You mean it’s something I’m doing that is causing it? I’m going to make changes right away! From now on I am going to act totally relaxed!” She was highly motivated for Parenting Counseling and together with 3 months of Play Therapy, her son’s anxiety was completely gone, at which point she was so thrilled that the explained to me in Spanish, “God bless all psychotherapists!”
Therefore if you have a child with anxiety I would strongly advise you to from now on display a very relaxed, confident attitude about everything.
If you are worried, you must keep it to yourself and be an actor in front of your child! Project the attitude that, “Everything is just fine right now, Mommy is taking care of everything! Any problems that may arise are really no big deal at all. There’s nothing we need to fix and there’s nothing we need to worry about or improve. Let’s just keep doing what we’ve been doing and everything is going to be great!” Children need to think that the world is a safe, rosy, fun place, and generally everything is fine and dandy. Don’t fear that they will be coddled by such and attitude, and will be unprepared for the real world as adults, because the opposite is true, sheltering them from stress now, allows them to grow up strong and hardy so they can tolerate future stress, but anxiety and stressors experienced in childhood makes them damaged and vulnerable to the challenges of adult life!
2. What causes anxiety disorders to develop in children? Being overprotective!
A therapist I was supervising once had a 5-year old client with significant anxiety and fear of going out into the street, and he asked me how he should proceed to treat this child. I asked him to inquire about the parenting atmosphere and attitudes expressed in the home. He said to me, “Actually it’s interesting, one time I came late to our appointment, and the child saw me from the window and came running down the stairs out onto the sidewalk to greet me. The mother came scurrying after him shouting, “You can’t run into the street by yourself like that! Don’t you know there are bad people who kidnap children?” I was stunned! With a parent making statements like that it is no wonder the child is afraid to go out!
Many parents in their sincere desire to help and protect their child, decide to enlist the help of the child in keeping himself safe, and warn the child to be careful of all the many dangers that are unfortunately out there. This is however a mistake, because it has the potential to generate significant anxiety. The truth is, it is out job to protect them without their help! You need to keep them safe without them knowing about all the dangers. It is too scary for kids to know about the sad, dangerous truth about the world. They will learn that when they’re older. Therefore if you are worried about your child, I definitely recommend you guard his safety very carefully, but the child himself should not be aware you are doing that! Let him think everything is perfectly safe.
3. Soothing anxious emotions
One of the critical roles of parents is that of soothing the children's upset emotions. When a child is afraid, angry, ashamed, frustrated, sad or anxious, he or she needs to learn the golden habit of going to his parents to have those emotions soothed in the interpersonal venue. The parent needs to reflect, validate and recognize those emotions as well as normalize them, that is reassure the child that having such emotions is normal and nothing to be alarmed about. All this allows the child to process and resolve his emotions by gaining conscious awareness of them, thus allowing his emotional life to flow healthily. However if the parents do not respond this way it can cause problems because the child learns, "When I have stormy overpowering emotions, there's nothing I can do about it. There's no one to comfort me. My only solutions to repress them." That's how critical it is for parents to soothe the child’s emotions! Let's say a child complains of the normal anxieties of life, and the parent responds, “Oh there's nothing to be anxious about, don't be nervous!” The child learns several key things. He learns to repress his anxiety, as his parents have expressed disapproval of his emotional state; they have given him the message that anxiety is not an acceptable reaction to a stressor, when the truth is it is actually normal and common and must be accepted. The child is further even made to feel ashamed for being anxious, causing him to try to further clamp down and repress his anxiety. If repeated over time this generates a lifelong habit of not recognizing and sharing anxiety in the interpersonal venue, therefore it builds up over time until it bursts out into a full-blown anxiety disorder.
Anxiety tends to feed on itself if not immediately resolved.
That is the person gets anxious that he's anxious. That's why resolving the anxiety in the interpersonal venue with his parents is so important. The child learns, “Ok, it's no problem I'm a little anxious. We will talk about it and take care of it, it's normal, it happens sometimes. It'll get better.” This gives him skills and hope for resolution and prevents the anxiety from feeding upon itself.
Anger is the same way. Many parents disapprove of or forbid the expression of anger.
This creates a habit of repressing and not resolving it. Repressed anger builds up over time and the fear that it may explode into inappropriate behavior generates terrible anxiety. Therefore it is so important for parents to recognize, accept, validate, reflect, process and resolve their children's angry feelings. Don't fear that recognizing it will make the anger worse because the opposite is true, recognizing it will resolve it.
4. Misfortunes generate anxiety
Bad things unfortunately happen in children’s lives. There is often conflict between parents, or a separation. Often unfortunately parents may yell at, criticize, shame, put down or otherwise mistreat their child. This us a great tragedy for the child and he intuitively knows it. Therefore he begins to think, “Look at all these bad and unpleasant things that have been occurring. Bad things just really seem to happen to me!” This creates significant anxiety as the child constantly fears the next tragedy, stressor or misfortune, he is constantly anticipating unpleasant events on his radar. Therefore is pays to be extremely meticulous to avoid causing your child any stress or unpleasantness! Whatever benefit or lesson you are trying to teach him is heavily outweighed by the damage stress does to his or her emotional health and self-esteem. Be gentle, gentle, gentle, tolerant, patient, flexible and generous at all times. Try at all costs to shelter children from conflict in the home, and get the appropriate therapy if there is a separation.
5. Low self-esteem and Perfectionism
Often stressors and conflict in a child’s life generates low self-esteem, self-criticism and a pervasive sense of shame. This can often lead to a condition called perfectionism, where the child creates a plan to rescue himself from feelings of low self-worth. He or she fantasizes. “Feeling so badly and self-critical about my self is truly intolerable! What can I do to redeem myself? I know, I will be extremely good, I will be great! I will work so hard to be so skilled and successful, that I will be near perfect, and then I will be so great that surely I will no longer feel badly about myself! And in addition, no one will ever be able to criticize me!” The only problem is that even if he achieves his goal, it will not help him because accomplishments cannot heal low self-esteem, only therapy and Parenting Counseling can do that. Therefore, the child may be in endless pursuit of perfection and not find relief. Such self-imposed pressure generates great anxiety because after all it is impossible to constantly achieve near perfect performance, and the child is constantly terrified of being stranded in shame and low self-esteem.
Therefore it pays for parents to be meticulous to completely refrain from all forms of criticism of their child,
even so-called constructive criticism does more harm than good! Avoid scolding and reprimands, and do not show conditional approval. That means don’t display approval, attention and love to the child only when he performs well, because that teaches the child, “Only when I do objectively good things and I Ok and acceptable. But if I fall short or make a mistake, it proves I am no good!” Since that inevitably happens often, the child will develop terrible self-esteem and shame, and may develop perfectionism and the resulting anxiety.
6. Being unpredictable creates anxiety
Children thrive under stability. They need their emotional environment to be very reliable, predictable and stable. But sometimes you have parents who are very kind and gentle a majority of the time, but a minority of the time have outbursts of anger, anxiety, punitive measures, criticism a bad mood or general expressed stress. The can lead a child to constantly worry, “When is my sweet, gentle parent I love so much going to suddenly turn into a mean, angry source of unpleasantness and stress!” Considerable uncertainty and anxiety can often be the result. Therefore it pays to always display your happy face to your child, and shield him from all forms of expressed stress! I suggest exploring further this blog and you will find many of the important parenting principles explained in detail.
7. What causes anxiety disorders to develop in children? Scolding and Reprimands!
This final point is the most important of all! Most parents have a sincere and well-intentioned desire to help their children to be fine and successful people. Therefore they feel it is very important to correct their childrens mistakes, and they may automatically use the negative tactic of scolding and reprimands. The logic is, if the child makes a mistake or some mischief and gets a very unpleasant scolding, next time he will think, “Last time I acted this way I got a very unpleasant reprimand, I don’t want that to happen again, therefore I will not make the same mistake!” This is the theory of behaviorism but in my experience in practice it never works, because when the next time to misbehave comes around, the child has almost always forgotten his previous reprimand or he has repressed the memory because it was so painful and unpleasant. In addition chronic scolding greatly stresses and traumatizes a child and lowers his contentment level, which only fuels more misbehavior! Not to mention scolding and reprimanding has terrible emotional side effects, and damages the ever-important parent-child relationship. And finally it generates anxiety, as the child is constantly in fear of his next painful reprimand, and he becomes unsure of himself and doesn’t trust his instincts and impulses. It can even generate ADHD symptoms, as the the child’s fear of scolding by authority figures distracts him during his learning! Therefore as I write about in many places in this blog, It pays to tolerate mischief, misbehavior and mistakes with a smile, and give your child the benefit of the doubt. Most errors will correct themselves over time anyway. If the child is making a dangerous mistake and you must reprimand him, do it ever so gently, and preface it by describing objectively all the wonderful things he or she does!
The Magic of Child-Centered Play Therapy
In addition to and concurrently with Parenting Counseling, Play Therapy the way I do it does wonders for reducing child anxiety. How does it work?
The 7 errors described above give the child the feeling that things in his life are out of his control, that bad things are going to happen and he is powerless to stop them. That means his very important sense of self-determination is greatly reduced. Play Therapy restores his self-determination by putting the child back into control! He comes into the Playroom, all the toys are there. I don’t tell him what to do, he makes all of his own decisions and completely directs the action, and I follow him. I verbally reflect, validate, support and even celebrate all of his decisions taken, feelings expressed and accomplishments earned, similar to a sportscaster describing a game. All this gives him an exhilarating sense of control over his own life and destiny, he gets to completely be the boss of an entire institution: his weekly Play Therapy session. This develops great well-being, self-confidence, self-esteem, self-respect and self-determination, which greatly reduces anxiety! In addition I reflect back all emotions and desires expressed in the playroom, giving the child a conscious awareness of his emotional life, and anxiety-producing emotions get processed. I have seen wonderful results with Play Therapy in just 3-5 months of treatment together with Parenting Counseling!
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