by Sinmarie Pieterse

What is anxiety?

According to the well known internet source Wikipedia, anxiety is defined as: A psychological and physiological state characterized by somatic, behavioural, emotional and cognitive components (also called angst or worry). It is the displeasing feeling of fear, uneasiness, concern and dread.  Anxiety is considered to be a normal reaction to stressor; it may help an individual to deal with a demanding situation. When anxiety becomes excessive, it may fall under the classification of an anxiety disorder.

Causes of anxiety:

It is a normal response to stressors, the more severe and long lasting the stressor, the more severe the anxiety.

  • The stressor may be real or imagined or merely a threat.
  • The stressor may be due to an unconscious conflict.
  • The stressor may be due to genetic factors- it seems likely that a psychological predisposition to anxiety disorders is inherited.

The physiological effect of anxiety on the body

It is closely linked to the body’s reaction to stress. Stress is how a person reacts to stressors. It can be positive stress, triggered by, for example, the start at a new school or a new sport. It can, however, also be negative stress, triggered by, for example, being teased, made fun of or abused. People suffer from the effects of stress. The differences in our physical and psychological make –up determine in part what our reaction will be.

  • Cognitive and memory loss.
  • Physical growth is inhibited.
  • Immune response is inhibited.
  • Digestion is slowed down.

How anxiety presents  itself in children:

  • Behaviour that presents itself with unexplained physical symptoms (Somatic) eg. Abdominal pain, nausea, pain, diarrhoea, headaches and muscular pain.
  • Apparently oppositional behaviour, refusal to perform tasks that is difficult or impossible.
  • Panic (before exams)
  • Aggressive outbursts out of character
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Deterioration in concentration and/or short term memory.

When this becomes excessive and occurs over a period of time, anxiety disorders can be diagnosed by those able to assess the distress caused by the anxiety.

The question is:  Can this be prevented? Can we bring up anxiety free children?
The fact is: There is no such thing as an anxiety free child.  All children and adults experience anxiety.  BUT, it can be managed!

ANXIETY does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, but only empties today of its strengths”   Charles Spurgeon

How to manage anxiety in every day life.There are two role players in the management of anxiety:

  • Parents
  • Children

Four possible causes of anxiety development in children:

External life circumstances

  • Divorce of parents
  • Trauma (armed robbery, car hijacking, motor vehicle accident, rape, assault)
  • Loss (death of a parent, close friends, beloved pet)


Developmental anxiety

  • 0-2 years
    Age of attachment:  Need to attach to primary caregiver vs anxious attachment
  • 3-4 years
    Age of exploration: Need to explore the outside world vs fear
  • 4-6 years
    Age of competence: Need to achieve vs feelings of inadequacy
  • 6-8 years
    Age of concern: Need to share vs alienation

If the child does not comply with these developmental stages, anxiety can set in

Anxious temperament

  • Genetic inherited
  • Low self esteem
  • Learning difficulties
Relationship stressors

  • Hostile attachment with parent
  • Over parenting (over protective parents)
  • Under parenting (lack of parenting)

What parents should not do:

  • Blame the child and accuse the child.”You are really not behaving well now…..I am ashamed of you!”
  • Deny his/her feelings: Saying things like, “It is not so bad, you will be ok……”
  • Compare, “Your sister did not cry like a baby if she had to go to school ……..
  • Catastrophise, “You will still be sleeping in your brother’s bed when you are 16 if you don’t do something about it now…….”
  • Advise,  “If you go quickly to Mrs Ps class, you will be ok in the next class….”
  • Minimise,  “It is not so bad to be going to music classes, you will see all your friends are there…….”

What parents should do:

  • Identify possible stressors for the child, such as, exams etc.
  • Set routines/Family rhythms…..”…Friday evenings we go to the Spur…
  • Anticipate what may cause anxiety and prepare in advance.
  • Medication- use only prescribed medication by a specialist
  • Therapeutic support by an trained psychologist in this field such as an Educational Psychologist
  • Emotional support, by being available to your child and by making time for your child daily.
  • Educational support, by communicating regularly with the school and teachers about possible remedial help.

Cohen, Sheryl.  An anxiety free child.
Benn, David, Dr.  Understanding anxiety