couples

Almost one in ten kids is suffering clinical anxiety.

What’s a normal fear, and when does a child need professional help?

My four-year-old son was crying hysterically and I felt so helpless. He was convinced I had touched some dirt on the floor and then made his sandwich without washing my hands. I tried to tell him I hadn’t touched the dirt and I did have clean hands and he wasn’t going to get sick. I hugged him and rocked him and said anything I could think of to soothe him, but he kept up his hysterical crying.

I wanted to just dismiss it as the overreaction of an overtired child but I couldn’t. I could see the fear in his face and I knew exactly how he felt. I’d felt like that too.

I’ve always been an anxious person. I am from a family of anxious people. For many years I suffered anxiety related to food poisoning. I became near-obsessive about cleanliness in the kitchen and washing my hands. It sounds so stupid, but I found myself thinking about food poisoning every time I ate. I would often finish a meal and then make myself sick with fear that the food would make me sick. It went on for years.

I’d believed I was over the worst of it, but when my son totally lost it that night, I became terrified that I’d unwittingly passed my anxiety on to him. Perhaps he’d seen how often I washed my hands when I was preparing food. Perhaps I’d told him too many times to wash his hands before a meal. Perhaps he’d inherited my family’s anxious nature.

We all want our kids to inherit our strengths. When we see our weaknesses in them, it’s almost unbearable.

In some ways, you don't want your children to take after you.

My son never became quite as upset at dinnertime again. But since then, he's always been very careful about washing his hands. Sometimes, if we're out, he'll refuse to eat until he can wash his hands somewhere. Or, if he touches the sole of his shoe during a meal, he'll want to wash his hands before continuing. It's not too extreme, but it's not exactly normal for a four-year-old either.

Occasionally, he's become very distressed about other things. One time, he started asking questions about death, and before I knew it, he was crying hysterically again - this time, at the thought that one day, when he was very old and very sick, he might die. Nothing I could say would calm him down. I have learnt to steer clear of the topic of death, even if he's the one who brings it up.

After reading an article in The Courier Mail about four-year-olds developing clinical anxiety, I decided to ring the researcher quoted in the article, Dr Vanessa Cobham from the University of Queensland. She was quick to tell me that it's "very unusual" for a four-year-old to be diagnosed with clinical anxiety. She managed to ease my fears about my son.

ADVERTISEMENT

"If these things are only bothering him on a sporadic basis, I wouldn’t be too concerned at this stage," she told me. "It’s just something to keep an eye on and see what happens."

But anxiety in children is a real issue.  Almost one in 10 kids between the ages of six and 11 meets the criteria for a diagnosis of anxiety. Less than one in five of those kids receives help for it. So how do you know if your child has crossed the line from normal worries to clinical anxiety?

"We’re really looking for very high levels  of distress, either in the child or in the family around them, and/or high levels of interference in terms of what they’re able to do in their day-to-day life," she explains. "So a child who, for instance, every day of the week, it’s a battle to get them to school. That’s starting to have a real impact on both the child and the family."

If your child always feels anxious about going to school, it's a worry for you.

Dr Cobham says the best way for parents to help children deal with their anxiety is to help them face up to whatever it is they fear, in a gradual way, to increase their confidence.

"For instance, if you have a child who is afraid of being away from Mum and Dad, and at the moment they’re spending every night in Mum and Dad’s bed because they’re afraid to sleep in their own room, then the first step might be that they sleep on a trundle bed beside Mum and Dad’s bed. It doesn’t feel too hard, but it’s the beginning of that process of helping them face up to their fears."

Childhood anxiety needs to be taken seriously, not just ignored in the hope it will go away. Kids with clinical anxiety are more likely to have problems with depression, substance use and suicidal thoughts when they're older.

"They don’t tend to just grow out of it," Dr Cobham adds. 

My fears may have been eased, slightly, for now, but I still worry for my son. All I can do is keep an eye on him, and if he needs help, I will get him help - the kind of help I never got for myself.

I don't want him to grow up to be just like me. I want him to be happier than I have been. Isn't that what we all want for our children?

This writer is known to iVillage Australia, but has chosen to remain anonymous.

Are you concerned about your child's anxiety?

Want more? Try this:

8 signs of stress post divorce in children.

The discipline tactic almost every parent uses causes harm to children.