By Reid Wilson, PhD and Lynn Lyons, LICSW
We live in a stressful world and this contributes to children feeling
anxious. They exhibit anxiety in a multitude of ways that leave both
parents and teachers alike feeling frustrated and helpless.
How do you manage a child who gets stomachaches every school morning,
who refuses after-school activities, or who is trapped in the bathroom
with compulsive washing? Children like these put a palpable strain on
frustrated, helpless parents and teachers. And there is no escaping
the problem: One in every five kids suffers from a diagnosable anxiety
Here are our answers to common questions about anxiety disorder in children:
Does anxiety run in families?
The research says yes, though many factors contribute to this. We know
there is a genetic component to anxiety (although there is no "anxiety
gene") but how families interact, the amount of risk that's tolerated
in a family, and the depression and anxiety of a parent all contribute
to the level of anxiety in children. A catastrophic view of life and
little tolerance for uncertainty and risk are attitudes and
perspectives that parents teach to children, whether they know it or
How do parents make anxiety worse? Or better?
Parents that teach their children that the world is a dangerous place,
allow their child to avoid any discomfort or experiences of failure,
express their own fears in front of the children, or thwart a child's
sense of independence tend to make anxiety worse.
Parents who allow children to fail at times, support independent problem solving, give kids space to experiment and take reasonable risks, and are aware of
their own fears and worries (without projecting them onto their
children) make anxiety weaker rather than stronger.
How do we know the difference between normal worries and problematic
Worry is normal, so the goal is not to eliminate worries from a
child's world. When kids grow and step into new experiences, they
should have questions and uncertainties. Worry becomes a problem when
a child is consistently avoiding activities or experiences that are a
normal part of development, such as going to school or visiting
friends' houses, or sleep issues. A fearful and often dramatic refusal
to try anything that is not familiar and predictable is another
warning sign. Anxious children become avoidant and rigid in their
daily routines, too, so that's another sign to monitor.
Do kids grow out of anxiety?
Once anxiety becomes a problematic pattern, it usually gets stronger
over time rather than weaker. The coping strategies that anxiety
demands become more and more powerful because they work so well in the
short term. Kids (and parents, too) do very well once they learn new
skills and know how to react and respond differently to anxiety when
it shows up.
We have written a book – Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous & Independent Children that offers a
concrete plan with 7 key principles that foster change. And, since new
research reveals how anxious parents typically make for anxious
children, the book offers exercises and techniques to change both the
children's and the parental patterns of thinking and behaving. We’ve also written the companion book for kids, Playing with Anxiety: Casey’s Guide for Teens and Kids, which is available as a free e-book. Both are available at Amazon.com or on the website www.playingwithanxiety.com. Together, they give families the skills they need to tackle anxiety and move back into living and growing.
About the Authors
Reid Wilson, Ph.D. is the Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry
at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Lynn Lyons, LICSW, is a licensed clinical social worker and
psychotherapist in private practice and a sought-after speaker and