There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t find myself talking to a patient or a parent about anxiety. I see patients as young as 4 years old who are “anxious” about sleep, school or after school activities. I also see plenty of high school students with the same concerns. It doesn’t seem to be getting any better either, as I think more and more of my patients visits are often related to stress and anxiety rather than to strep throat or an ear infection.
This begs two questions: How did stress and anxiety become so prevalent and how do we change it?
If I knew the answers to that I could write a best seller!! But I do think I have some ideas. Some of the stress and anxiety that our children feel at an early age may have some roots in genetics. Anxiety seems to have a genetic predisposition but is it all inborn? Can you change some of a child’s early reactions to situations by the way a parent reacts? I think that the answer is yes.
Very young children pick up on parental cues. For example, I had a young mother who recently came in and was worried because her 14 month old son was being “pushed” in play group and he would sometimes even fall down. She was tearful while she was talking about this and at the same time she was guarding his every move in the exam room. No falling in here!
I asked if the other mother’s were appropriately talking to their toddlers who had done the pushing and she said they had, but it was just “too much to bear”. She was not going to go to play group (they might not invite her back) if he was going to get pushed. I could feel her anxiety flowing to her newly walking son.
Another patient recently brought her child in due to recurrent stomach aches. After getting a good history and talking about the tummy aches with the child directly, it seemed as if they might be due to stress and anxiety. The mother then began to talk about her own stomach aches and how debilitating they were for her and all of the tests that she thought should be run. This conversation was in a bit too much detail for an 8 year old to hear. After a minute or so the little boy said, “I think my tummy aches feel better when I talk about them to my feelings doctor”. Hmmm....wish the Mom would have let me know that bit of information earlier. Mother’s anxiety being passed to child?
So.... when appropriate try to “down play” the falls or tummy aches of child hood. Lot’s or reassurance that “it will be okay, or let me kiss it and make it better” often works wonders.