At the ripe old age of 7, Michael already knows the meaning--and the feeling--of high anxiety.
Just last week, his mother took him to rehearsals for a play at Laguna Beach High School. As he waited in an outside courtyard for the rehearsals to begin, a high school student approached him as she walked toward her locker. The second-grader panicked and squatted behind a concrete bench until she passed.
“It’s not like him to be so fearful, but after we talked, it all made sense,” says Laguna Beach psychologist Judy Clark. “That morning, he overheard his parents talking about a little boy who was murdered by some high school kids after witnessing a gang shooting. Michael hid because he wasn’t sure whether or not the girl had a gun.”
There was a time not too many years ago when the greatest threat to the peace of mind of most children Michael’s age was a wicked witch, a troll from a Grimm’s fairy tale or a bogeyman who somehow managed to finagle a starring role in a nightmare.
But these days, Clark says, reality can be far more anxiety-provoking for young children than anything they might imagine.
“These days, kids routinely eat their Cheerios while watching TV coverage of how many people were shot and killed on the streets of L.A. the night before,” says Clark, who has three children ranging in age from 5 to 20.
“They see graphic footage of bombings, gang violence and civil unrest. They hear adults talking about rape and child molestation cases and shootings in schools right here in Orange County. Even coverage of natural disasters like earthquakes and landslides heightens their anxiety, because it reminds them of that much more that could go wrong in their world.”
Such megadoses of reality take a toll. As Janiece Boardway, M.A., a marriage, family and child counselor intern with Health Psychology Associates in Irvine, points out: “The age of innocence is a lot shorter than it used to be. Kids are exposed to so much so soon, and it’s impossible to control everything they see and hear. When you consider the frequency and intensity of the images that most kids see today, it’s easy to understand why so many of them are feeling so stressed.”
So what’s a parent to do?
Boardway says the first step is to be aware of common warning signs that a child is experiencing severe anxiety, including:
* Sleep disturbances, such as nightmares, waking up during the night, or an inability or unwillingness to go to sleep alone.
* Changes in eating habits, such as a sudden increase or decrease in appetite.
* Deterioration in academic performance. It’s difficult for a child to concentrate, Boardway says, if he or she is preoccupied with concerns about their personal safety.
* Aggressive behavior, such as hitting or pushing other children.
* Withdrawal, isolation and dependency. Boardway says kids who feel anxious about the world often retreat, choosing to spend more time at home, where they feel most secure. They’re also much more clingy and less willing to go places and do things without their parents.
* A preoccupation with death and danger, such as expressing concerns that a traveling parent get hijacked or killed in a bombing.
Clark says it’s essential that parents address their children’s fears and concerns by talking about them openly.
“Anxious parents create anxious kids,” Clark says. “A lot of parents think they’re protecting their kids from the real world by not talking about the bad things that happen. But that kind of avoidance usually does more harm than good because it teaches kids to avoid problems and ignore feelings. It sends a message that it’s better to shut down than to communicate.”
Clark says she understands the temptation parents often have to avoid such discussions.
“When kids see stories about violence, it often raises the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people,” she explains. “And that question makes a lot ofparents extremely uncomfortable because there is no answer.
“The reality is that there are some things you just can’t explain, especially to a 6- or 7-year-old who’s really into the notion that everything has to be fair. At that age, they’re not wired to understand that life isn’t always fair. The idea of random evil is too much for a young child to grasp.”
Clark suggests that parents help balance their child’s perspective of the world by spending time with them doing something positive in the community. She and her two youngest children volunteer once a month at a South Laguna homeless center, bagging food and helping clean the facility.
“Getting involved with your kids in a community activity not only strengthens your relationship with them, but it also empowers them with a belief that they can make a difference, that they can effect a positive change even in an imperfect world,” says Clark, who is expecting her fourth child this fall.
“By focusing on what they can do to make the world a better place, you remind them that while bad things sometimes do happen, the world isn’t careening out of control and not all strangers are bad.”
It’s also important for parents to be conscious of the attitudes and messages they communicate to their children.
“Children see the world through their parents’ eyes,” says Janiece Boardway. “They’re extremely reactive to their parents’ moods and fears. If a little girl grows up in a home where her parents constantly rant about how dreadful and dangerous the world is, it’s a safe bet that she’s going to grow up more conscious of the bad in the world than the good.”
Rather than focusing on the negative, Boardway says, a more positive approach is to instill confidence and self-reliance in the child by conducting a sort of emotional fire drill, in which the parent and child discuss options she might exercise should she ever find herself in a threatening situation.
Boardway also encourages parents to use creative expression techniques such as art and role playing to get to the heart of the problem. “Through drawing and action, kids often communicate feelings they’re too frightened or unable to verbalize,” she explains.
Boardway, who will conduct an eight-week workshop on mastering anxiety later this spring at the Irvine Medical Center, also advocates that parents closely monitor what their kids read and watch.
“I’m not just talking about refusing to take a 5-year-old to a Freddy Krueger movie,” says Boardway. “Parents need to really be sensitive to the images they allow into their homes, not only on TV but in newspapers and magazines. Photographs in Time and Newsweek, for example, have become increasingly graphic in showing dead bodies. Some might argue that it’s real life and that you can’t protect kids from reality forever. But kids--and adults, for that matter--can only handle so much.”
The greatest challenge facing concerned parents, Boardway believes, is walking the tightrope between protection and paranoia.
“It’s a very fine line,” admits Boardway, who is expecting her first child this summer. “More than once I’ve caught myself thinking, ‘I’m never going to let my baby out of my sight.’ But then I remind myself that part of being a parent is teaching your children well and trusting them.”
It’s a tough lesson, and one Boardway says many parents resist under the guise of being a “good parent.”
“Some parents, however well-intentioned, become so protective that they actually do more harm than good. They’re so fearful themselves that they refuse to let their kids experience life and do basic things like walk to school or go play at a friend’s house. It’s one thing to talk with kids about how to best protect themselves and stay safe. It’s another to insulate their world and control it so closely that you--and they--are constantly expecting the worst.”