Q: My kids have shown too much anxiety at different ages, which keeps coming up again at different times in various situations. They’re pretty young (7, 5, 3, with my youngest only 19 months). I wish I understood what’s going on, because I really lose my patience. My husband thinks our kids are crybabies. I know I should try to help them get through whatever’s bothering them, but it seems so overwhelming. I’d love some information.

A: Thank you for your question, as I’m sure many parents can relate. It sounds like you’re having some real challenges, wanting to support each of your children with his/her anxiety, which is a good starting place.

Most of us will likely recall a time when our 8- or 9-month-old baby was anxious when a stranger approached. Sudden, clinging behavior indicated our infant’s mistrust, holding tightly for comfort from his/her parent. This is the introduction to “stranger anxiety.” Later on, toddler fears become more difficult to understand.

Fear is normal, an important part of young children’s healthy development. Anxiety brings up dependency needs, usually appearing at times of developmental transitions. When we, as parents, as well as other caregivers, support our child’s need to experience fear as a normal reaction to stressful, unfamiliar situations, our child is better able to adapt to new circumstances.

In later development, approximately ages 3 to 6, children will encounter new fears, especially as they learn about aggression — their own and others’. Children tend to experience aggressive feelings during this stage, while also becoming more fearful of the aggressive feelings in other people. At the root of this anxiety is your child wrestling with emerging feelings of independence. This period of development, known as separation-individuation, mirrors the emotional struggles of adolescence.

As parents, most of us have been asked at some point to tackle our child’s bedtime fear. Naturally, nighttime is when those “jitters” are likely to appear. When a child is trying to cope with her growing independence, while still dependent on her parents, this might manifest as a fear of darkness. Monsters, ghosts, or other scary creatures hide in the shadows. Other fears we often see at this age are: anxiety about dogs, loud noises, heights, strangers; worry about a parent dying or disappearing; fear of failure, and also of impending disaster. Keep in mind that bedtime is about transition for a child, helping us better understand that separation from his parents often triggers anxiety.

As you’re asking what you can do to help your child with these scary feelings, consider if your own childhood fears resonate with your child’s particular anxiety. As a result, you could either be overprotective to spare your child facing a concern, or unusually frustrated and impatient. We can help our children by connecting to their feelings, listening respectfully to everything they tell us about their fears. Give them permission to worry, normalizing their anxiety. We can tell her we’re confident she will learn to overcome the fear, developing helpful ways, as she grows, to master and better understand the uneasiness.

Often apprehension surfaces when children are dealing with competitive feelings. Providing children with acceptable tools to handle their aggression is one way to reassure them. These emerging emotions are a normal part of development. Reassure your child that all children of this age have fears. Talking about your own anxieties when you were his age and how you handled those lends support. Provide some insight into the underlying causes of his fears (ex: letting him know he is struggling with overwhelming, scary situations). Focus on the ways he’s becoming more independent, with the understanding that it can be challenging and frightening to do so. Keep it simple and listen.

Spending time alone with your child on a consistent basis will provide the opportunity to talk openly. Every time a fear is mastered, give lots of encouragement, reinforcing her success. Teaching a child to express angry, aggressive feelings also establishes an important foundation for communication during periods of turmoil in later developmental stages, particularly adolescence. Different fears provide a lens through which to view the necessary hurdles and struggles that all young children must navigate.

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”— Fred Rogers

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