Dispelling Myths about Anxiety in Children

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By Timothy A. Sisemore, Ph.D., author of 'I Bet I Won't Fret' and 'Free from OCD'

Many people are misinformed about children’s worries and anxieties. It’s time to dispel some of the myths that are common today.

Myth #1: While children have some fears, true problems with anxiety are rare.
Actually, anxiety disorders are the largest mental health issue for children and young people (and for adults, for that matter). They are just harder to notice and aren’t usually disruptive, so they get less publicity than problems like ADHD where the behavior is easier to spot and may irritate others.

Myth #2: Children often tell their parents about their worries.
This can be true, but many times it isn’t. If it is a one time worry, parents are helpful if they respond by explaining why things will be OK, or comforting the child if the outcome is uncertain (for example, a very sick grandparent). However, many times children don’t tell parents their worries lest they upset their parents or if they feel their parents might not understand. Anxious kids are often pleasers, so they may not risk your displeasure by telling you.

Myth #3: Children always outgrow their fears.
OK, so this is a little tricky. Certainly, many children outgrow most of their fears. Lots of transient fears are normal at certain stages of development and pass as the child matures. These grow into clinical anxiety when one fear lasts too long (a ten year old probably shouldn’t be scared to spend the night away from home with a friend) or when new ones keep replacing old ones so that the child is constantly worried about one thing or another.

Myth #4: A loving parent always comforts children and protects them from their fears.
“Always” is the key word. When a child has normal fears about normal things, comfort is usually in order. However, when the fear is irrational or excessive, a child benefits from being led into overcoming it. When my six year old daughter asked me to carry her across our porch to avoid ants (not the dangerous kind) that scared her, I gently refused and had her (somewhat reluctantly) join me on the porch for a little session on the harmlessness of ants. Problem resolved.

Myth #5: A good parent discourages a child from worrying too much by telling him that it’s no big deal and to quit acting so afraid.
One of the strangest things we do is simply tell kids “Don’t worry.” After all, how many of us simply stop worrying when told to do so? This may lead the child to feel like a failure if the worries continue, and keep worries to himself to avoid disapproval. It is better to offer empathy for the frustration of worry and its persistence. You are then in a better position to offer specific steps to help the child overcome the worry, not just dismiss it.

Myth #6: If a child is anxious, it’s her parents’ fault.
This can be true, but by no means is it always so. Parents can contribute to children’s anxiety through their genes, as many anxiety disorders have a clear genetic relationship. Parents can also teach children to be anxious by being overly anxious or overly protective themselves. If you as a parent work on your own anxiety, it will set a good model to the child, but the child can certainly develop worries and anxieties independently of parents due to a life experience or particular thought patterns.

Myth #7: School personnel are good at picking up anxiety.
Sadly, this is far from true. Some teachers are better than others, but anxious children – for the most part – don’t want to be noticed or draw undue attention from teachers. Many times these children will work hard to bottle their fears as best they can at school to avoid suspicion, then fall apart once home. Teachers more easily notice children who act badly. That’s why many anxious children never get the help that would ease their silent suffering.

Myth #8: If I ask my child about his anxiety, it’ll only make him worry more.
Most often this isn’t the case. Some anxious children try so hard to be perfect that thinking something is “wrong” will add a worry. However, if there really is a problem, it can’t be fixed until admitted and addressed. Anxiety is often very successfully treated and I hope you give your child the chance to beat it, not just deny it.

Myth #9: Medication is the only treatment for anxious children.
Happily, this isn’t true by any means. Many children with severe anxiety benefit from medications, but often they are tried too quickly. Kindly helping children confront fears, or working through available workbooks (like mine!) can help. If those don’t suffice, then a form of counseling called cognitive-behavioral therapy has great research to support its effectiveness. If that, too, comes short, or the anxiety is debilitating, then consulting a physician for medication is in order.

Myth #10: My child will only feel more anxious about something being wrong with her if I take her to a psychotherapist.
This is sometimes true, particularly with Obsessive – Compulsive Disorder where the child attempts to control life so tightly to avoid feeling imperfect. Paradoxically, these are often the cases that can benefit most from counseling. For most anxious children, however, having someone coach them through their worries that has worked with other anxious children and understands theirs will come as a relief. Many of the children I see entered therapy when they asked their parents to get them help.

Being proactive in dealing with children’s anxiety early can greatly enhance their quality of life and prevent suffering in adulthood. If you know an anxious child, take steps to encourage and help them with the battle. They will thank you for it later.

Timothy A. Sisemore, Ph.D. is professor of counseling and psychology at Richmont Graduate University in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and maintains a private practice in clinical psychology. He is the author of I Bet I Won't Fret: A Workbook to Help Children with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (New Harbinger Publications, 2008) and Free from OCD: A Workbook for Teens with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (New Harbinger Publications, 2010).

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