Thankfully anxiety doesn’t control or shape my life. Even so, there was one period where I was so chronically anxious (I’m talking months), I was functioning on autopilot. My thinking shut down, and existing and surviving took over. I was unable to see beyond a day at a time, sometimes the next few hours. While I was able to distract myself, my mind would always return to my anxieties and fears.
Thankfully time has moved on and life is now different. My reason for sharing this personal experience is to say that I know how much anxiety can change our lives. It can stop us from doing things and change how we are with others. When anxiety truly has you in its grip, you just get by. Anxiety can prevail over extended periods of time, and sometimes, it can be hard to find a way out.
Anxiety in Childhood
It can be hard to manage anxiety as an adult so imagine what it’s like for a child to experience such palpable fear, whether it’s rational or not. Children don’t have the same sophisticated thinking skills as adults. They can’t weigh up their fears or work through them alone. Instead, life can become organised around their anxiety. This could mean having to remain close to a parent as there’s a fear of being alone (Separation Anxiety), creating order and control in their surroundings to ensure the worse doesn’t happen (like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), or becoming more isolated from others and failing to integrate with peers (as is the case with Social Anxiety). Anxiety can also seep into lots of areas of the child’s life and seem a bit unspecific (Generalised Anxiety Disorder).
Whether you’re 2 or 52, anxiety can take over your life. Given all the different presentations though, what’s it really about? I often find a fear of loss and separation underpins anxiety in children even though it may be shown in different ways.
Loss and Separation
The themes of loss and separation are with us from birth. We are taught to be independent from a young age. Even as babies we have to learn to separate from our mothers. As we grow older, we gain a sense of autonomy and hopefully see ourselves as agents of change. For children, being independent can be quite a scary prospect. While anxiety can be about the loss of, or separation from, another, it can also be about our own death or losing part of ourselves. For instance, someone could develop obsessions and compulsions to try and control the likelihood of experiencing a hallucinations. Here, the fear is about a loss of mind.
If we stick with OCD as an example, the classic presentation is a fear of germs or contamination. Work through that and get underneath it, and the fear is usually associated to a belief that germs and contamination will lead to illness and death. It’s about understanding, for each person, what’s the worse that could possibly happen. And this usually leads in the same direction.
If It Isn’t Loss, What Is It?
Even though I find loss and separation to be theme, there are some instances where anxiety may not be all about this. Someone who’s anxious about being in public, for example, may believe others will judge them. This might be related to an underlying sense of not feeling good enough, or deep-seated shame. In all cases, when and why the fear started to develop needs to explored. If we have a coherent understanding of our experiences, and how we got to a certain point, it will inform us how we overcome it.
Where To Start?
The first thing you can to is accept the fear and worry. This will help you remain empathic and connected to your child. Furthermore, it will prevent you from avoiding, control, or dismissing their feelings. Anxiety is likely to incubate and grow if we try and control or minimise it. It will find an alternative route. Just imagine an anxious, clingy child who is continually told to stop, and is made to spend lengthy times on their own. It’s unlikely to help the situation or the underlying fears. It won’t offer the child a sense of safety and security either. Sometimes we have to sit with some very uncomfortable emotions, and offering understanding can alleviate the pressure, and the worry. You, either on your own or with help from a therapist, can then think about how to initiate change.
Have you experienced heightened anxiety over a period of time? If so, what do you think it was related to?
If you are concerned about your child’s anxiety or fears, you may find this from Young Minds helpful.