Understanding anxiety

Understanding anxiety
It’s normal for a young child to feel anxious when faced with a new situation or change. However, some children are more anxious than others—here’s why.

It’s normal for a young child to feel anxious when faced with a new situation or change. However, some children are more anxious than others—here’s why.

Anxiety is an intense emotional reaction triggered by stress or fear. “It’s a fear overreaction,” explains psychoeducator Suzie Chiasson-Renaud. “The anxiety is felt even if the danger isn’t real. It can be triggered by only our thoughts, because we believe that something bad will happen.” For example, if a child jumps or cries out when they see a big dog, they’re experiencing fear. But if they don’t want to go to the park because they’re afraid they might see a dog, that’s anxiety.

Fear and worry are normal emotions that children feel during their development. “Occasional anxiety is perfectly normal in children,” says Chiasson-Renaud. “They’re exposed to so many new situations and unknowns. What’s more, their brains aren’t developed enough to manage their emotions.” During childhood, anxiety is often transitory. As children get older and adapt to new situations, their anxiety generally dissipates.

What causes anxiety?

While all children can experience anxiety, some are more anxious by nature. Here are a few factors that explain why one child might feel more anxious than others.

  • Temperament – A shy, fearful child might be more prone to anxiety.
  • Genetics – “Very often, a child who shows signs of anxiety has at least one anxious parent,” says psychologist Tina Montreuil, director of the Childhood Anxiety and Regulation of Emotions (C.A.R.E.) Research Group at McGill. Genetics play a role, but anxiety can also be passed down to a child through a parent’s actions, such as worrying too much or being overprotective.
  • An event that brings significant change to a child’s life, such as a new baby or a parental separation – When this type of event occurs, parents may be under stress and less available for their little one. For example, four-year-old Marion started showing signs of anxiety after her little brother, Arnaud, was born. “Arnaud was hospitalized twice after his birth, so we often had to leave Marion with a babysitter,” says father Carl Ducharme. “She started to feel anxious at daycare and in the middle of the night—whenever she wasn’t with us.”
  • A lack of routine and rules – Children need clear, concrete rules to feel safe. Otherwise, they don’t know what to expect, which can create anxiety.
  • A hectic family schedule – When young children don’t have enough quality time with their parents, they can become anxious. These bonding moments make them feel safe, calm, comforted, and emotionally balanced.
  • High parental expectations – Children may become anxious because they’re afraid of making mistakes and disappointing their parents.

How do I know if my child is anxious?

“When my son is feeling anxious, he becomes a real fireball,” says Jolianne Korak. Her son Alexis is three and a half. “He has so much energy to burn. He might run down the street, yell, throw things, or hit me.”

Since small children don’t have the words to express how they’re feeling, their anxiety manifests through their behaviour. Some, like Alexis, become agitated and aggressive. Temper tantrums, crying, confrontational behaviour, and irritability are other signs of anxiety. “Sometimes, anxiety is mistaken for hyperactivity because anxious children can have difficulty controlling themselves,” says Dr. Montreuil. “For example, they might have trouble sitting still or act aggressively during recess.”

According to Dr. Montreuil, the opposite is also possible. “Shy children might not have any external reaction at all when they’re anxious.” They can freeze up, fall silent, avoid others, and show no emotion when they’re with strangers or in public. Six-year-old Elyam is one such child. “In new situations, he gets overwhelmed and won’t move for several minutes,” says his mother, Mira Dana.

Stomach aches, headaches, and nausea are other signs of anxiety in children. “Sleep problems are also common in anxious children,” says Marie-Ève Mongrain, a psychoeducator at the Vaudreuil-Dorion CLSC. “They can’t sleep without their parents, have trouble falling asleep, and wake up in the night.” For about a year, that’s exactly what Marion’s parents went through. “Almost every night, our daughter would wake up to check that we hadn’t gone back to the hospital,” says her father, Carl.


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, September 2019
Research and copywriting: Julie Leduc
Scientific review: Dr. Benoît Hammarrenger, neuropsychologist


Photos : Maxim Morin (en haut et en bas), GettyImages/nd3000 (au centre)