{Child} Anxiety 101

Posted On: 05.07.13


I dropped my daughter at Preschool this morning and as I was leaving to head home and write, I noticed that they were setting up chairs for a meeting in the gym. This jogged my memory about an email I’d received recently about a free Child Anxiety Workshop with Buffy Smith, PhD. Yup, it was today. I’ve been to this very workshop twice before, so I could have skipped it, but no. I love these things. These discussions. I am a sucker for exploring ideas. I can’t get enough of it.

And Anxiety? It’s something I have personally experienced before. Acutely. Subtly. It’s something that affects my day-to-day. I think it’s something that is a part of all of our lives, a feature of modern existence maybe particularly in this city I’m fortunate to call home. Here’s the thing: Knock wood, but my kids don’t strike me as anxious beings. There aren’t particular issues I’m worried about with them. Rather, I am interested in this topic more generally to the extent that it affects, and should affect, life and parenting.

And so I decided it was a privilege to be able to go to this event and that I would take notes and communicate them here. Because I know that this topic affects all of us. I also know that we don’t all live in big cities with elite schools that offer this kind of thing on a random Tuesday morning. So, this post is not intended to be artful but informative. Here goes. Oh, and a caveat: This is all culled from my notes and it is entirely possible that I misheard or misinterpreted something Dr. Smith said! {Oh, and leave a comment below for the chance to win three books Dr. Smith mentioned.}


anxiety can be a good thing.

As someone who considers herself a Type-A anxiety-prone creature, this was obviously good to hear. Dr. Smith said that anxiety is often connected to growth, that when our kids are developing and hitting certain milestones, they often experience a concomitant anxiety. These are called Developmental Anxieties. Obviously, we want our kids to grow and evolve so we must be prepared to witness certain anxieties in our kids, and help them cope. Moreover, there are anxieties whose sources are external. These are called Environmental Anxieties. Again, facing these stresses (enumerated below) is part of life and can ultimately be a good thing and make our kids more tough and resilient.


Developmental Anxieties

Again, these are anxieties that have to do with development of the child. Examples include:

  1. Stranger Anxiety. When a child is fearful or wary of strangers. Often begins around 6 months or so.
  2. Separation Anxiety. When a child is anxious about separating from his/her parents/caregivers/known entities. This can continue in school years and beyond. Dr. Smith said that many adults experience separation anxiety every Sunday night as we ponder leaving the nest and experiencing another week in the world.
  3. New Situation Anxiety. When a child is anxious about new situations like birthday parties, classes, trips, etc.
  4. Real/Pretend Distinction Anxiety. When a young child is just learning to distinguish between what’s pretend and what’s real, this can cause anxiety. An example is a fear of monsters.
  5. Real Danger Anxiety. When a child develops fears about real life dangers – i.e. burglary, natural disasters, diseases, death, etc.


environmental anxieties

Again, these are types of anxiety whose sources reside in the world instead of the child herself. Possible sources:

  1. Loss. A child’s experience of losses bigger (death, divorce) and smaller (end of school year, saying goodbye to a friend or teacher) can create anxiety.
  2. Change. Many children are sensitive to changes in routine or schedule.
  3. Discrepant Expectations. Kids often experience anxiety when there are different sets of expectations at play, i.e. when parents are separated and each parent has different rules at his/her home or when two parents within the same household have different approaches/rules/expectations.
  4. Performance Anxiety. A biggie here in NYC, young kids often experience anxiety when they are expected to perform on tests, in school settings, etc.


nature versus nurture

Anxiety is an area where the ubiquitous nature versus nurture debate should have considerable billing. Different kids, depending on who they are and how they are being raised, will respond to anxiety in markedly different ways. Three things that affect how an individual child might respond to anxiety are:

  1. Temperament. Depending on a child’s temperament, he/she will be more or less porous to sources of stress and more or less able to cope with the anxiety said sources cause.
  2. Life Experiences. Children who have weathered difficult life experiences might be more prone to anxiety. Then again, Dr. Smith noted, it is often the kids who have been through a lot who have developed the most resilience and are therefore better able to cope with anxiety when it comes.
  3. Environmental/Parental Response. Our kids’ ability to cope with anxiety is related to how we as parents and caregivers cope with anxiety. A sobering thought, no? In essence, we need to be careful to process the world and its stresses in a way that models how we’d like our children to respond to these very stresses. Easier said than done, I know. And the doctor also noted that this doesn’t necessarily mean we should never let our kids see us anxious or upset.


anxiety is normal. unless it isn’t. {when to seek help.}

One of the fellow moms in the workshop asked this very good question, namely: when should we begin to worry that our child’s anxiety is bordering on pathological and it is time to seek help? Dr. Smith noted two factors that we should keep in mind:

  1. Duration. If the child’s anxiety goes on and on and no longer seems to relate to discretely stressful situations or sources (see above) and Anxiety seems to become the “lay of the land” for this particular child, it might be time to get a professional opinion.
  2. Interference. If the child’s anxiety has developed to a point where it seems to be interfering with the business of childhood (i.e. the ability to play, eat, sleep, attend school, etc) then it is probably time to look into things.


this is not just about kids, is it?

The workshop was instructive and fascinating, but what intrigued me most is that virtually every single thing Dr. Smith said about children can be applied to adults. We all go through our days experiencing anxiety. We all run up against stressful situations, internal and external. We all have different temperaments, life experiences. We were all raised by different parents. Anyway, the point is that this is not just about our kids and how to raise them well and help them thrive in an increasingly anxiety-provoking world (hello Krim Tragedy, Hurricane Sandy, Newtown, Boston), but how to help ourselves do the same.

And I figure that information – and conversation – are good places to begin.

Hope that you all found this somewhat interesting/helpful/insightful. The cool thing is that I approached Dr. Smith after the session and told her that I would love to consult her on an ongoing basis about parenting questions and she seemed really open to this. How amazing to have an expert to call upon when having these discussions, right?

Oh, and Dr. Smith mentioned three recent books in the parenting literature that she thinks are worth checking out: How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, Teach Your Children Well by Madeline Levine, PhD, Quiet  by Susan Cain. I own and loved the first, but plan to go ahead and order the other two. Also, I will be giving away one copy of each book to a randomly-selected commenter below.

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Have you personally experienced anxiety? Have your kids had any bigger or smaller issues with anxiety? Do you agree that anxiety is part and parcel of modern life? How have you coped with anxiety or helped your kids cope with it? Do you have any particular questions or anxiety-related topics you’d like me to explore here on the blog?


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15 Comments for: "{Child} Anxiety 101"
  1. Aidan Donnelley Rowley

    This post was getting long, so I cut it off but perhaps the most interesting part of the workshop was the Q&A at the end. Fellow parents asked questions about everything from the stress of being a bilingual child to the stress kids feel when their parents travel for work to nail-biting and thumb-sucking and night terrors… I would be happy to share the questions and answers here (or in another post) if anyone is interested. Look forward to these comments and this conversation; I think it will be a good one!

  2. QUIET and TEACH YOUR CHILDREN are among my favorite books of the last year or two – really thoughtful and thought-provoking. I reviewed them both on my blog. Curious to hear what you think. Wonderful insights here – thank you for sharing!! xox

  3. Sam

    Quiet is my absolute favorite book of the past year. It revolutionized the way I think about myself, and the way I think about the people with whom I interact on a daily basis. Definitely worth the read whether you are an introvert or not. I would be really interested to hear what you think about the book. Maybe a review is in order, when you finish?

  4. Alecia @ Hoobing Family Adventures

    Thank you for sharing what you learned. This is really important information in this complicated world we are raising our kids in. I will share on Facebook as well as I’m sure other parents can benefit from the information. Cheers!

  5. I have experienced anxiety…from childhood through adulthood…Felt to be a worrywart or just someone who was always hyper-aware. My anxiety is now controlled with mindfulness, yoga and occasionally a libation. What was fascinating to me in my own journey of research was stumbling upon Elaine Aron’s work on Highly Sensitive People.


    There is a sub-set of us on the planet actually wired neurologically different than people who are not highly sensitive which can account for a lot of anxiety prone humans. By being acutely aware of the subtleties in our environment, HSP’s (as they are commonly referred to) have good reason to be anxious–they can see and feel what a lot of “normal” people can not. I agree that Parental Response is huge and work very hard to remain neutral for my non-HSP Friends and Family. A rather new branch of science that we are seeing gain respect.

    I would love to read all of the above books–the journey is always unfolding!

  6. Eliza

    I have read, and loved, Quiet. An inspiring book in a world that celebrates extroverts. Would be interested in reading the other two!

  7. Rachel C

    Good stuff Aidan, and wonderful that you’ve shared with us all. I encounter questions about children’s anxiety all the time in my work . I think we all are baffled at times about how to address our children’s worries/fears & anxieties and I’ve found (both personally & professionally) that simply helping a child name his feeling “You are feeling nervous” or “you are worried” and linking the physiological response to a word so that he can express himself and ask for help is a wonderful first step in coaching our children through the anxious times. I loved the first book your recommended, and also second Aron’s work. I will check out the other two recommendations!

  8. Appreciate your sharing what you learned there!

  9. My son’s school had a small fire when he was in kindergarten. The school was evacuated and parents had to pick up the children. Kindergarten rooms had smoke damage so he was displaced in the building for a couple weeks. My son is now in second grade and still responds when bells or alarms go off that trigger memories of the fire alarm and he has trouble falling asleep because he worries about fires…a couple nights a week. I have talked to the school therapist but she says it isn’t to a degree we need to be super concerned. But the mama gut feeling has me feeling so sad and I would love any resources that could help me help him. Thanks for the opportunity. Love your blog.

  10. Peggy

    I have been meaning to read Quiet but haven’t yet – my husband and I are both extroverts, but we have a daughter who is introverted and it took us a while to figure out what she needed (alone time) and yes, quiet.

    Since I am anxiety-prone, I have been on the look out for the same in my girls – my oldest (9) is sensitive and has been anxious in the past over new experiences or changes in routine. She internalizes alot while her younger sisters are footloose and fancy free! I wonder if birth order has anything to do with this.

  11. Lucy

    I appreciate your spirit for learning and sharing. Raised by anxious parents who tried their best, I see that I am slightly more relaxed than them, and I am also just trying to do my best. Still, my daughter experiences separation anxiety (as do I when it comes to her) and my stepson’s anxiety comes from change and discrepant expectations. It feels good to “name” it. I think the more aware we are about anxiety, the more we can notice when it’s affecting us (or our children) and take a moment to reframe our thoughts. I actually make an herbal tea to treat anxiety, “Find Serenity,” so that helps me.

    Thank you for spreading awareness about this very real and occasionally scary fact of the human condition.

  12. Melissa

    Haven’t read the first two, but just finished Quiet last week and LOVED it. Funny enough, I was going to suggest this book in the comments, and then I read that Dr. Smith recommended. Awesome! You’ll love it. Very relevant to your post here and offers lots of other thought-provoking ideas. Before reading the book I would have definitely said I am an extrovert. After reading (and throughout my reading) I am not so sure. I might be just as introverted (the middle place is called ‘ambivert’). So without name calling;), I think I might be an ambivert. Enjoy! And thanks for sharing, ADR.

  13. Nic

    Thank you so much for this – while I don’t have children and have allegedly long outgrown the developmental anxiety stages listed, I definitely agree that these different types of anxiety can also apply to adults and that it really helps to be more aware and better informed.

    PS. I know I’m a bit late to notice, but it’s really really nice to have you back here!

  14. Phoebems

    I am so interested in this topic, and thanks for writing up your notes. My own baby is quite young, but we’ve already seen episodes of Stranger Anxiety and I would love to feel better-equipped to handle his anxieties as he grows older…as well as handling my own!

  15. The book Quiet was such a informative and insightful read. Thanks for this info, Aidan.

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