Ages & Stages: What Makes Children Anxious

Helping children feel calm and relaxed in your program

By Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., Susan A. Miller, Ed.D., and Ellen Booth Church
  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Stage by Stage 0-2

  • * From 6 to 12 months of age babies begin to exhibit separation anxiety.
  • * Babies can feel very frightened when losing their balance.
  • * Children develop a wide variety of fears during the toddler years.

Stage by Stage 3-4

  • * Preschoolers often have difficulty separating fantasy from reality, which can intensify anxieties.
  • * Fours can become very frightened by events with unexplained sources, such as flashes of lightning.
  • * Threes and fours can become very anxious when worried that they won't meet adult expectations.

Stage by Stage 5-6

  • * Competition is a serious source of anxiety for many 5- and 6-year-olds.
  • * The fear of losing face with peers can produce anxiety in kindergartners.
  • * Worrying about change, whether related to family, school, or friendships, can cause fives and sixes considerable anxiety.

0 to 2 "I SCARED!" by Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D.

Nicky was crawling about on the floor quite happily when a visitor walked in the room. He puckered up and began to cry when the visitor greeted the teacher in a booming cheerful voice. Nearby, Sasha was banging blocks together, watching warily as the stranger approached too close to where she was sitting. A strange voice, and a stranger coming too close for comfort, can signal scary scenarios for babies.

Differences in Temperament

Some young children become fearful more easily than others, due to temperamental shyness, an inborn personality trait. Teachers need to become aware of which babies seem temperamentally more fearful, require more reassurance, and need more time to adjust to group care.

What causes anxious feelings in babies? When undressed, some babies flail their limbs and feel upset. If tiny babies are gently swaddled in soft receiving blankets, they relax and feel less upset.

Some babies have very irregular feeding and voiding habits. Sometimes their tummies feel intensely empty. If teachers have this baby on a rigid feeding schedule, the baby may feel despair, as if he will never be fed when he needs a nursing! That is why it is important to tune into each individual infant's needs for feedings and diaper changes. A stretched out waiting time for food for a baby may seem like "forever"!

Managing Separation

During the latter half of the first year of life, babies often show separation anxiety. They are securely attached to, and feel comfortable with, the parent who has cared for them. Suddenly, they must get used to new arms holding them, new voices talking to them, new routines, and a new physical environment. At the end of the first year, and some months into the second year, some babies will also react with intense worry to a stranger. Stranger anxiety may be heightened if there are sudden changes in the childcare situation, with different adults to get used to.

Toddlers' Fears

During the toddler years, children develop a wide variety of fears, such as shadows of leaves moving outside the darkened window of their bedroom, dogs barking, or "monsters" that toddlers might vividly imagine are hiding under the bed.

Toddlers whose parents argue with loud voices feel anxious. And some toddlers do not have regular schedules. There may not be regular, relaxing bedtime routines. Children show fright by hiding in their beds, wetting their beds, chewing on fingernails, and displaying other behaviors that signal the worries they are feeling.

Fear of abandonment by familiar parenting figures is a great fear of childhood. When told that parents are splitting up, many older toddlers will scream, vomit, and beg parents not to leave. Sincere, convincing reassurance that each parent loves the child is the antidote for this fear.

Toddlers who are allowed to watch inappropriate TV fare, such as videos with violence, feel insecure and fearful inside. A steady diet of TV with aggressive, scary characters results in disturbed sleep patterns and, possibly, aggression toward peers. Toddlers may have trouble sleeping and wake with nightmares.

Some toddlers are intensely scared of the dark. They need a hall light and a night light in the bedroom in order to be able to settle more easily into sleep.

What You Can Do

Keep routines soothing and predictable for babies.

Hold a baby who is new to the program so that your cheeks are gently nuzzled and his head is facing away from your body. Jiggle the baby gently as you walk about the room with baby snuggled on your shoulder, while you rub his back soothingly.

Use low voice tones. Murmur gently so that baby gets used to your voice.

*

3 to 4 "YIKES-GET AWAY!" by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

Curious, the preschoolers gathered around the large anthill covered with ants that seemed to spring up overnight on the playground. Then, appearing to be frightened, several children ran away screaming while 3-year-old Alexia headed straight for her teacher. Fascinated, 4-year-old Todd stayed and poked gingerly at the anthill with a long stick.

The preschoolers' reactions over the ants show the varying intensities of fear and anxiety that many young children have. What is also evident is that what frightens one preschooler might well intrigue another.

Having learned from their own past experiences, some of the children who ran away screaming were bitten previously by ants. This traumatic experience hurt a lot, which accounts for their anxiety.

Another young child learned to be anxious and fearful from her parents. As Alexia clings to her teacher's leg for security, she announces, "Mommy is afraid of all creepy crawlies! Me, too! " This 3-year-old may also be anxious because she does not know exactly how these insects may react.

Using the long stick, 4-year-old Todd is a little fearful of the ants' bites, so he knows not to touch them. However, he feels compelled to investigate because he really loves insects.

Later on inside, the preschoolers use their hands in a fast-moving shadow play to create "biting bugs," butterflies, and spiders. This pretend play helps them to be in control and not feel so vulnerable and afraid.

Dealing with Common Anxieties

When a substitute teacher greets 3-year-old Darby at her classroom door, she begins to cry because she is frightened by this unfamiliar person. The next day, when her teacher, Mrs. Molina, reappears with her broken arm in a cast, Darby is extremely anxious. Threes often become upset when things like cookies and toys, or in this case, an arm, are broken.

Separating Fantasy and Reality

Three-year-olds, and sometimes fours, often have a difficult time distinguishing whether their dreams and fantasies are real or not. For this reason, their nightmares can be very frightening to them. During pretend play, they may not wish to take the role of the bad guy for fear they will turn into the robber.

Managing Rules

At the art table, Angela's hands and arms are all covered with finger paint. Looking guilty, she says, "I am afraid Mommy will be mad at me. I made a big yucky mess." Three-year-olds tend to try hard to please the adults in their lives and may become anxious if they do something they think an adult will perceive as being naughty or messy.

Fearing the Unknown

Although they appear bold, noisy ,and bossy and display actions (kicking, karate chops) that indicate they are not afraid to take on the world, 4-year-olds also have very vivid imaginations that are inclined to make them afraid of the unknown. While they enjoy taking on the role of an exciting superhero, they can also become frightened of outside forces, such as the loud sound of a fire siren. Some fours are afraid of such things because they are unsure of what is happening due to their lack of complete information or experience-where is that loud sound coming from (siren)?

Experiencing School-Related Fears

As 4-year-olds get ready for kindergarten, many develop school-related fears. They feel anxious when they can't sit for long periods at group time. Or, they are afraid of disappointing the adults in their lives when their not yet fully developed fine motor skills won't allow them to do things like write letters with a pencil. Some anxious fours develop eye tics or stutter nervously if they feel pressured to do certain tasks "the right way."

Various events in a preschooler's life may make him feel anxious if he doesn't understand what is happening. Calming helps children prepare for unexpected, as well as expected, changes.

What You Can Do

Be a good listener. Try to discover what it is that makes the child afraid. Help him clear up misconceptions.

Provide reassurance. Offer tangible support if needed, like a flashlight to scare away nightmares at naptime.

*

5 to 6 "YOU LOSE!" by Ellen Booth Church

It is a beautiful spring day and Jerry and Belinda are playing on the monkey bars while Leslie and Juan look on. Playfully challenging each other with different movements, Jerry and Belinda turn competitive when they realize others are watching. The escalating game of challenging each other with "Can you do this?" leads Jerry to sadly walk away when he starts to feel anxious about being able to keep up with Belinda.

Focus on Cooperation

Competition and loss is a surprising but real concern for 5- and 6-year-olds. At this stage, children are becoming more social, and with this comes an awareness of others and their opinions. Fives and sixes want to be first and best. They fear losing face when they make a mistake in class or lose in a game. That is why this is an important time for children to learn to focus more on cooperation than competition. Their fragile egos can be easily dashed by even the most playful taunt of "you lose." When you concentrate on cooperation, you help children see that they can work together to be sure that everyone can win and nobody loses.

Celebrate Individuality

Five and 6-year-old children can also be anxious about what others think of them. This awareness can lead to children comparing themselves with others. Interestingly, while fives and sixes really want to fit in, at the same time they want to be seen for their own uniqueness. It can be a difficult conundrum for children to deal with. The question for them might be, How can I be different and be accepted at the same time? When children feel good about themselves they are more accepting of differences in themselves and others. A strong self-concept builds a strong foundation for dealing with competition, comparison, and losses. You can help children by celebrating their unique behaviors and skills instead of homogenizing the group.

Fear of Change

Fear of loss can take another form in the lives of kindergartners. This is the beginning stage of fear of abandonment. In some ways this is the next step after the separation anxieties of their younger years. Children in this stage truly value their friendships and connections with family and friends. When a best friendship breaks up, or a friend or family member moves away, they feel the loss deeply. This is the perfect time to begin to help children understand that change is a part of life. Friendships, family, school-even they change with the passage of time. You can celebrate the concept of change by inviting children to notice how they have grown and changed just in this year together. They might notice how the groups of friends that sit together at meeting time or snack are different than in the beginning of the year, but that they are all still good friends. Or they might notice how the playground or classroom has changed over the year but it is still there for them to play in. When we give children opportunities to see what remains consistent within these changes, we help them move beyond fear of loss to an understanding of the innate changes of life.

What You Can Do:

Encourage children to cooperate rather than compete. Play cooperative games. Make sure everyone has a turn to be first while celebrating being last as well! Celebrate the diversity of the classroom community. Explore the concept of change by taking a walk around the classroom to notice changes.

http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3488

  • Subjects:
    Changes and New Experiences, Confronting and Resolving Fears, Child and Infant Care, Child Development and Behavior
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