At his day camp, Moshe had trouble getting into the pool with the rest of the boys. He would think about drowning or swallowing too much water. With time, though, over the course of the summer, Moshe went from putting his toes into the shallow end to eventually dunking his whole head underwater.
The pool wasn’t the only area of camp that worried Moshe. He would ask his mother constant questions about baseball, “Mommy, what happens if the ball hits my head? If I slide and scrape my knee could it get infected if I don’t clean it well enough? What if I strike out and my teammates get upset at me? What if I drop the ball?”
Penina, Moshe’s mother, calmly answered Moshe’s endless litany of questions, but as summer was ending, she was silently dreading the approaching school year. While summer camp presented a set of challenges, school offered unique and potentially more threatening problems. As the weather started to cool and September loomed, Penina could tell from Moshe’s refusal to speak about school supplies that he was already beginning to worry about his return to the classroom. They went through the same process every year: Moshe kicking and screaming in the car on the way to school, two months of crying before he went to sleep, and then Moshe’s eventual resignation and despair for the duration of the year.
Up until last year when Moshe started first grade, Penina attributed his fears to his age, but with each passing year, it seemed harder to believe that his youth was the root of the problem. Regardless, Penina was at a loss. How could she help Moshe adapt to school? Would he ever be happy there?
Anxiety: More than Just Worrying. Moshe’s fears are indicative of a larger issue: anxiety. Often, transitions from one activity to another will spark anxious episodes and feelings. Tamar Chansky, in her book, Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, explains that there are several types of anxiety disorders that manifest themselves in different ways:
In 2001, in The New York Times, Margaret Talbot reported that around 13% of the population is affected by social anxiety. While social anxiety was originally considered a rare condition, in the late 90s, psychologists, teachers, and parents began to identify it as a much more common issue.
People who believe they might have social anxiety exhibit some the following symptoms:
- Frequently blushing in front of people
- Sweating in front of people
- Trembling or shaking in front of others
- Heart palpitations around people
- Fear of embarrassment causes them to avoid speaking to people
- Aversion to speaking to anyone in authority
- Going to great lengths to avoid criticism
- Excessive fear of strangers
- Social anxiety is also linked to depression – quiet resignation and isolation
Children with separation anxiety worry about separating from their parents during school, work, and a quick errand, bedtime, or even when they are in the next room. Kids with separation anxiety report a vague feeling that something bad will happen and they need to be near their parent in order to prevent that from happening. In order to diagnose separation anxiety, these symptoms must not be isolated and must occur for more than four weeks consecutively.
It’s common for these children to:
- Have difficulty attending school
- Make frequent calls home
- Show unwillingness to play at friends’ houses
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder involves anxiety and stress about traumatic events in one’s past. This disorder frequently occurs after violent personal assaults, such as mugging, domestic violence, terrorism, natural disasters, or accidents. Children who experienced an extremely disturbing event might subsequently develop generalized anxiety. PTSD is often triggered by sounds, smells, or sights that remind the sufferer of the trauma.
Some symptoms of PTSD include:
- Anger and irritability
- Guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Substance abuse
- Depression and hopelessness
- Feeling alienated and alone
- Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
- Headaches, stomach problems, chest pain
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
The New York Times defines obsessive-compulsive disorder as “an anxiety disorder in which people have thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations (obsessions), or behaviors that make them feel driven to do something (compulsions).”
Some examples of OCD are excessive hand-washing to ward off infection or repeatedly checking the locks on the door to ensure that they are secured. Children with OCD often recognize that their behavior is excessive, but cannot stop themselves from their compulsive actions.
Parents: Be Part of the Solution. Marianna Csoti, in her book, School Phobia, Panic Attacks, and Anxiety in Children, outlines the different ways that parents can help their children overcome anxiety:
- Do not speak about the anxiety in front of your children. Parents should avoid discussing their child’s worries in front of him. Hearing about his own problems can often cause more anxiety and result in seeing his problems as larger than they are.
- Do not introduce your own worries. Parents should try to remove any unnecessary pressure from the child, as he needs to be protected from stress regardless of how the parents feel.
- Reassure your child. Your child should be told that his fears will not always be with and that he will eventually feel better once he gets over the part he dreads.
- Listen to your child’s anxieties. Allow your child to express his fears even if they seem silly to you. This does not mean that you have to “give in” to his every whim; rather you are proving to your child that you are aware of his suffering.
- Create a gentle start to the day. If your child struggles with going to school, wake him early in a gentle manner (with music or cuddles) to allow him some time to adjust to the reality of going to school.
- Stick to regular routines. Even though the summer has its own schedule, sticking to the same bedtime and morning wake-up throughout the summer and school year will allow your child to better adjust to the school year.
- Seek a professional opinion. Anxiety is a serious issue that cannot always be solved by a caring and capable parent. If you feel that your child’s anxiety is affecting you and your family, seek a professional opinion.