A high level of anxiety in kids is a key early warning sign of emotional difficulties that can easily mushroom into eventually suffering anxiety and depression together. In fact, in the majority of adults, depression and anxiety co-exist, but they don’t have the same age of onset.
Typically, anxiety precedes depression by many years; the anxious child is much more likely to become an anxious and depressed, or “comorbid,” adult.
The most common form of anxiety, though not the only one, is social anxiety. When a child is fearful of other kids and avoids interacting with other kids (stays in the classroom at recess instead of going out and playing, for example), there is good reason to be concerned.
As children get older and the more they don’t fit in with other kids, the more they accumulate negative feedback from other kids; they are made fun of, they experience more rejection and their feelings get hurt, which further raises their anxiety about being around others. By the time they get older still, they become increasingly shy and quite likely lonely, as well. Shyness, loneliness, and depression are related.
All are associated with higher levels of anxiety, greater scanning for and detecting negative reactions in other people, and more internal focus (higher levels of rumination) on negative feelings. Shyness leads to more social avoidance, which then increases a sense of victimhood and depression.
Loneliness doesn’t just hurt emotionally, it hurts physically, too. Feeling lonely can make you more vulnerable to illness, and new research in the area of genetics suggests why. A recent study at UCLA revealed that people who described themselves as the loneliest on loneliness scales exhibited increased gene activity associated with inflammation and reduced gene activity for antibody production and antiviral responses. Chronic loneliness may actually change gene activity.
If your child is socially anxious, the psychological stress can affect him or her in both emotional and physical ways. To counter the social anxiety, the most important thing you can do is help him or her to develop coping and social skills. Every day this child doesn’t get along with others, he or she gets negative feedback that can cause bad feelings early in life, and lead those bad feelings to be an enduring way of life.
Learning how to begin and end friendly interactions, how to keep a nice conversation going, how to be easy to be around, how to “read” others, how to be smart about what to disclose and when, and many other such skills are best encouraged early on. Being trapped in a world with billions of other people with whom you don’t know how to interact skillfully assures a much more difficult life.
Helping a child to learn how to think about people, how to recognize their character strengths and talents, as well as their motivations and how to manage their manipulations, is most easily done by helping them learn about their own such patterns.
Talking with kids about important interactions they have with teachers and other students, encouraging the child to think through what was said and what the impact was or is likely to be is the kind of conversation that can start relatively early in life. Asking questions such as, “Why do you think the teacher said that to Billy?” and, “How do you think Billy was feeling when the teacher said that to him in front of the whole class?” or, “What would you have done if the teacher said that to you?” are questions that stimulate conversation and encourage the child to be observant, thoughtful, empathetic and deliberate.
Be especially careful not to make global statements about people, such as “The other kids act that way because they’re all jealous of you” or “They’re all spoiled rotten.” Global thinking discourages critical thinking.
Asking kids, “What if?” is a good technique for learning to manage anxiety. “What if something happened to me, what would you do? What if another kid did such-and-such, what do you think you would do?” Anxious children (and adults, too) tend to ask themselves “what if?” question regularly, which scares the heck out of them because they don’t have answers: What if I get lost and mom can’t find me? What if my parents divorce? What if my daddy dies?
The anxiety that comes from asking such frightening questions is normal. The key to learning to manage the anxiety and empower yourself in the process to trust your own judgment is to answer the question. It would be unpleasant to face the circumstances in the “what if?” question — unpleasant but manageable.
In dealing with your child, help him or her answer the question. Let the child learn to be a problem-solver instead of a worrier. Help your child learn to calm himself or herself with self-soothing techniques like slow, deep breathing, and relaxation or self-hypnosis techniques when facing stressful situations. These techniques will help better prepare your child for a lifetime of challenges.
Last reviewed: 27 Dec 2010