Child Anxiety: What’s Healthy?

Seperation anxiety

Stress. Worry. Fear.

We tend to view these emotions as negative, but in reality, they are a normal and healthy part of human development. They are uncomfortable to feel, for sure. But discomfort isn't actually bad. It's just...uncomfortable. And that discomfort can actually serve a helpful purpose.

Think about it. What would happen if you NEVER felt worried? Never felt fear?

The truth is, we need these emotions. Fear triggers our autonomic nervous system, which helps us to fight, flee, or freeze when faced with truly dangerous situations. And that shot of adrenalin can also enhance our performance by helping us to run faster, jump higher, project our voice with more passion, think quickly, and generally help put us "in the zone."

Anxiety felt in anticipation of an upcoming event, ether known or unknown, motivates us to prepare for the situation, anticipate problems, and develop contingency plans. It's what motivates us to write a will, research safety ratings on the vehicles we buy, buckle our kids into their car seats and wear their helmets when riding their bike, prepare for a job interview, and study for an important test. It's a valuable emotion, designed to keep us healthy, safe, and prepared.

Fear Develops Early

Humans are designed to feel the full range of emotion. Fear and anxiety develop as early as infancy, reflecting the new ways in which children understand the world. As babies are more and more able to distinguish one person from another, we often see a fear of strangers emerge, typically between 6-12 months of age, peaking between 9-13 months, and then fading by around 30 months.

As children begin to recognize that danger exists in the world, often between the ages of 2-6 years, specific fears, such as fear of dogs or the dark, begin to surface. Then, as children enter elementary school, real-life fears such as fire, weather, and illness become more common.

As you may expect, middle school typically brings about social comparisons and the related worries about fitting in. Such concerns about fitting in as well as worry about academic and athletic performance, while common, can be painful and quite distressing. Then as adolescents approach adulthood, they become increasingly aware of their identity and develop concerns about larger life issues such as moral values and their future success.

Some Kids Feel Worry and Fear More Intensely

While feeling scared and worried is a normal childhood experience, the reality is that not all children experience these emotions the same way. Some children experience more mild feelings, while others (roughly 15%) can experience fear and anxiety with a high degree of physiological intensity. They are extremely distressed, and their distress is clearly visible and usually quite audible. Children who have this inhibited temperament are at increased risk for problematic anxiety in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

While fear and worry are necessary and helpful emotions, feeling them too often or too intensely can get in the way of a healthy and fulfilling life. Excessive fear and worry can cause undue distress, overreactions to minor situations, and avoidance of difficult situations. It can have a negative impact on school and family functioning, and it can interfere with developing healthy friendships.

When to Seek Professional Help

  • Does your child seem distressed often or is she often avoiding situations that may lead to anxiety/distress?
  • Does your child consistently show anxiety in the same type of situation (e.g., when he sees a dog)?
  • Does your child seem anxious at some point nearly every day?
  • Does her anxiety appear uncontrollable?
  • Is his anxiety getting in the way of his everyday life or your family life?
  • If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, please talk with a mental health professional or your child’s doctor. Supporting children as they work through their fears and worries helps them build confidence, self-assurance, and become more resilient.