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Children's Health

Possible Child Anxiety?

05/05/2010

Question:

My three year old son has been displaying some odd behavior for a 3 year old, or so it seems to me. He is not enrolled in school yet but I fear we may have a problem when it comes time! he does not like things that are out order or out of place. We have problems at birthday parties where ballons are involved, if they are not tied down to something or get away he flips out starts throwing tantrums. It could be OCD, i`m not sure! he also has frequent nightmares & night terrors! he has a hard time going to bed! I`m not sure what all this means he seems scared of even his own shadow. He believes that there are things out side the room he is very frightened! Is this anxiety or just his weird quirks. I also wanted to know if he could have feelings about my marriage his father & I separated when he was a year & a half old & I recently got married. Could this effect him in anyway? or the fact that he stays with his father 3 days a week (we have joint custody) does he feel like i could be abandoning him? I`m not sure if he understands the mommy & daddy part of everything & that we arent together! I don`t know if what he is going through is anxiety or what? I just need to know what I`m dealing with & how to handle this! Thank you in advance!!

Answer:

It certainly is a lot for both and your child to handle!

Let's start with the background - your divorce and remarriage. Although conventional wisdom says that young children suffer the least when it comes to separation and divorce, they certainly are affected by their parents anger, frustration, and sadness with major losses and changes in life. Many adults believe that children, especially the very young, live in a magic, protective bubble that keeps them safe and happy just because they are children. In fact, young children are exquisitely sensitive to their parent’s feelings.

Also, by 18-months-of-age, your son knew well who his familiar and trusted caregivers were and clearly there was a big change in daily life for him. At the same time, he entered his toddler years when order and routine in daily life are important for the sense of safety they give the young child. Toddlers, who are so new at walking and exploring an ever enlarging, and yes, frightening world, feel safe and secure around sameness. His world lost a lot of the sameness that helped him feel safe.

Mother Nature also protects the young explorer by making the toddler cautious around new people and experiences, which is why the toddler often looks back to the parent's face to see how the parent feels about the new adventure in which the child is engaging. Is the parent smiling and saying words of encouragement or looking frightened and worried? It can be difficult to appear calm and encouraging when you are going through a difficult time as a parent. Insecurity and anxiety can be "catching" in the small world of the family home. Now his world has changed again, as a new man is in the home. As researchers well know, even happy things are stress producing for most of us.

As you suspect, your son's drive for neatness and order is beyond normal levels. It may be a way he is trying to restore and strengthen his sense of safety and security. If these behaviors interfere with learning and being with other children, they are no longer healthy behaviors and they need to be addressed by someone who is skilful in working with young children and their parents, for example, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, a child psychologist or psychiatrist.

Both nightmares and night terrors normally occur in the preschool years, which your son is just entering. Imagination and fears about monsters and the dark are also common. All of these things are a result of the newly budding imagination of the young child and are reassuring signs of normal brain development. That does not make them any easier to cope with or help you know how to help your son when he is distressed.

I recommend highly the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP's) website for parents, www.healthychildren.org. It has excellent timely information on all of these behavioral issues. Other resources I strongly recommend to parents are Barry Brazelton's Touchpoints books and Penelope Leach's, Your Baby and Child Birth to Five. Both Drs. Brazelton and Leach provide insightful and supportive mentoring for parents who are striving to understand their young children's needs and suggest practical and respectful strategies for coping with the challenges of the young child's behavior.

If you do not already have a strong daily routine going at home for sleep time, naps, meals, and play, it would be a good idea to do so now to help increase your son's sense of security and predictability in daily life. The whole family would benefit from time with a good developmental pediatrician or child psychologist who can help you understand your child, handle the challenges your son is presenting, and monitor his progress in getting his anxiety under control. Ask his pediatrician for a recommendation and do visit the AAP's website. The Preschool section has wonderful print and audio resources about the social and emotional development of the child as well as how to handle nightmares and night terrors.

I hope this information proves helpful in your journey as a parent. You obviously care a great deal for your son and have already put thought into trying to understand him and help him.

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Response by:

Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN
Professor of Clinical Nursing
College of Nursing
The Ohio State University