Cincinnati Family Magazine

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April 23, 2024

Scaredy Cat!

Help for the Over-Anxious Child


Monsters under the bed. Fire alarms. A bad grade. They’re all common childhood fears, and chances are your child will be affected by one or more of them during his childhood. In general, kids usually outgrow their fears, but what about the child who counts every minute on the clock each morning for fear of missing the school bus? And how about the preschooler who worries aloud about house fires and insists on checking the stove and fireplace before bedtime? What do you do about the kid who chews his sleeves to shreds or bites his nails to the quick?

If you have a “Nervous Nellie” in your household, rest assured that you’re not alone. People of all ages develop irrational fears, and most employ odd behaviors to relieve stress. The good news is that with a little compassion and understanding, you can help your child relax and de-stress.

How Do Fears Develop?

Despite Sigmund Freud’s stance, children’s problems aren’t always Mom’s fault. Jeremy Veenestra-VanderWeele, M.D., a pediatric psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt, says you can’t predict what will trigger a child’s fear.

“Children are going to be scared of something because fear is helpful from an evolutionary standpoint; it’s a safety mechanism,” he says, “Parents often don’t see or hear the event that leads to the fear, and sometimes it’s just a dream.”

Sensationalist media can also skew a young child’s view of reality. With local meteorologists dubbed the “Storm Tracker Team,” it’s no wonder kids think a tornado is approaching every time the weather report is announced. When news stories about school lunches are advertised as “Our National Obesity Epidemic” or “The War On French Fries – Keeping Your Child Safe From the Dangers of Trans Fats” is it any wonder kids are afraid? Graphic images of war and natural disasters can also cause nightmares or general anxiety in young children, so make sure your child is old enough to handle it before catching up on the news in his presence.

What constitutes “old enough?” Experts say parents should take it on a case-by-case basis. Children without siblings tend to be more sheltered than children with siblings. Bear in mind that experience builds resilience.

All in the Family

Do fearful parents create worry-wart kids? Maybe. Veenestra-VanderWeele says that although there is a genetic component to anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), that doesn’t mean every anxious child has an anxious parent or vice versa.

However, parental behavior may have a larger influence on a child’s worries than DNA. A child’s first role model is his parents, so if Mommy is a germaphobe, it’s no surprise when her little boy refuses to use the bathroom in a restaurant or drink water from the tap at a friend’s house. And if Dad is constantly muttering about crime and terrorism, chances are he’s got a child who worries about them, too. The difference is that kids aren’t old enough to put those fears into perspective, so a child – even a teenager – may worry that his family is at risk from an unseen threat when in reality, that risk is very small.

Parents will sometimes inadvertently fuel a child’s fear by making a big deal about it or giving in to it. Take the child who’s afraid of dogs: steering to the other side of the street every time a dog walks by or asking friends to put their dogs in the garage when you come to visit only reinforces and perpetuates the fear. In a child’s mind, there seems to be something to be afraid of because Mom won’t let him near dogs.

Likewise, the child who gets four-star treatment every time he reports a nightmare is a lot more likely to show up at Mom and Dad’s bedside at 3 a.m. complaining of bad dreams than the child who gets a brief and gentle reassurance before a tucking back into bed. That doesn’t mean that children’s fear should be ignored. A reassuring attitude is more beneficial than becoming overly concerned, which can inadvertently heighten the child’s anxiety.

Baby Steps to Bravery

Some typical childhood anxiety like worrying about monsters under the bed generally disappears with age, but others like fear of dogs or fear of the water can carry on into adulthood negatively impacting a person’s life.

“Kids can get stuck on something unless parents are willing to help them get unstuck,” says Veenestra-VanderWeele.

For simple fears of things like bugs or dark rooms, Veenestra-VanderWeele recommends parents show their kids how to face their fears in small doses. He says to use calming words like “It can’t hurt you” and explore the backyard or dark room together. “Go outside together near bugs, move near them, give children a model of how to deal with it,” he explains.

When a child’s hesitation – like the fear of water or dogs – is the result of parental influence, it’s necessary to get outside help. A qualified swim instructor can help a child gain water-safety skills and the necessary confidence to have fun at friends’ pools and the lake at summer camp. Likewise, asking a relative or friend to gently acclimate a frightened child to their dog is a great way to help a nervous child get along in our dog-friendly society.

Tics of the Trade

In addition to normal childhood fears, many children also develop little tics or odd behaviors that can annoy or worry parents because they often occur in response to stress. Nail biting, nose picking, hair twirling, sleeve or collar chewing, and throat clearing are just a few of the most common repetitive behaviors that kids engage in. While they may be irritating, they’re usually temporary and generally harmless. Although these quirks usually manifest themselves when children are anxious, they can also show up when kids are bored or trying to fall asleep. Veenestra-VanderWeele says, “If it’s a common soothing technique, don’t worry about it.” Children often outgrow their tics or simply exchange them for more socially acceptable repetitive behaviors like gum chewing.

If you want to help your child break a habit because it’s unhygienic or because it’s causing teasing at school, take the sensitive approach. When you see your child engage in the behavior, simply say, “Please don’t do that.” Avoid teasing or shaming because it will cause more stress. Give him an alternative action like playing with a small toy, video game or coloring. If you’re in the car – where kids are easily bored – try distraction with questions about school or a game of I Spy. Finally, offer plenty of praise for good behavior and even a small prize for long periods of self-control.

Is it OCD?

Watching an adult gnaw the end of a pencil is gross, but not out of the ordinary. Watching a child chew his shirt collar to shreds or pick his nose until it bleeds can be downright alarming. How do you know when a child’s quirks are normal and when they might indicate something more serious?

“It’s a matter of degree and persistence,” explains Veenestra-VanderWeele. “There are kids who will bite their nails for a couple of months or chew their sleeves a few times a day or have their bedtime ritual done the same way every night. But if it takes up an hour of their day or interferes with spending time with peers, that’s when you worry. If it starts to interfere with their life, it’s time to talk to the pediatrician about it,” he says.

Ask Around

Even the bravest among us face fears, and everyone displays anxiety-relieving behaviors at times. If you’re not quite sure what’s OK, talk to other parents, your child’s teacher or his school counselo. Chances are, you’ll hear tales of other kids’ quirks and walk away reassured. Veenestra-VanderWeele says, “Being anxious about your child’s anxiety doesn’t make sense.” So ask for help if your kiddo’s worries are worrying you, too!

Deborah Bohn is a mother and freelance writer. She lives in Franklin.

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