In my last blog, I talk about worry and anxiety and how these emotions manifest themselves as stressors for our children both physically and emotionally. I talked about how we as parents can treat these feelings as if they were brought about by the Worry Monster, which our children can learn to battle like warriors with the right knowledge and tools.
Now, in this second installment of this series, I will lay out all of the faces the Worry Monster can wear from the most basic levels of stress to the most challenging types of anxiety.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is basically the generalized and widespread Worry Monster. GAD describes what happens when a child or adult experiences ongoing worry that is excessive, pervasive, and constant about most topics. Children who have generalized anxiety worry about many things– if you are going to pick them up, if they are going to get laughed at, if their school work is good enough, and if they look okay. The list goes on. This is where the Worry Monster is always around and constantly messing with your child.
Panic disorders or panic attacks are the purest form of the fear response, in which a person breathes very rapidly but in such a shallow way that can’t take in enough oxygen, and there is a build up of carbon dioxide in the blood that triggers a feeling of panic. The “fight or flight” response is activated to help your child “survive.” An onslaught of physiological sensations caused by adrenalin flooding the body is experienced. The problem is that this response is activated when your child doesn’t need it– during a test, or before a birthday party, musical performance, or swim meet. The Worry Monster pounces and attacks swiftly in the case of panic.
Agoraphobia is the term we use when a person thinks he is about to have a panic attack, whether he’s had one or not, and he fears he will be unable to escape the situation once he starts to panic. It is somewhat like a fear of becoming fearful. Because the individual wants to avoid the panic attack, as well as related feelings of embarrassment, he avoids places and situations where he fears he might experience an attack. Whenever he runs away or avoids a situation, his anxiety is reduced – temporarily. Except that now his running away and avoiding has been reinforced, making it even more difficult for him to overcome his fear, and restricting his life experiences. This makes the Worry Monster’s hold stronger and stronger.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is characterized by an anxiety-producing, often persistent and repeating thought or idea– an obsession– that is both intrusive and may be embarrassing. A compulsion, on the other hand, is a repetitive, intentional behavior that is done to try to relive the anxiety produced by the thought. Most people think of OCD in terms of flipping light switches on and off repeatedly or washing one’s hands excessively. These are common OCD behaviors. However, behind these behaviors are repetitive irrational thoughts that are very distressing and won’t go away. In most cases, the child with OCD has to do some specific thing to feel okay, like touch the doorway in a certain place when walking through it, or tapping each leg the same number of times, or kissing you on both sides of your face before bedtime. The Worry Monster tricks your child into thinking that engaging in random and repetitive acts or thinking repetitive random thoughts, bad things won’t happen and he will be okay.
Sometimes anxiety is tightly focused. A specific phobia is a restrictive fear that is excessive, unreasonable, and triggered by the presence or anticipation of a specific object like a snake or spider or a frightening situation such as public speaking or flying in an airplane. These phobias are usually easy to avoid, such as avoiding insects by never going camping and avoiding planes by never flying, though there are some exceptions. These specific fears, however, can impact not only the child but also the family as in the case of fear of dogs. This fear can keep a child and family from parks, soccer games, and friend’s houses. The Worry Monster is targeted in these cases.
A social phobia is a persistent fear of social or performance situations in which a child is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny from others. This is basically the fear of embarrassment or humiliation. (“The kids are going to laugh at me,” “Look how they look at me,” “They’re making fun of me,” “What if I forget my lines,” “What if I say something stupid,” etc.) Now there could be some truth to those statements, right? We all know kids who actually have these experiences at some time or another, however the child’s response when the Worry Monster is visiting can be extreme. Examples of extreme behavior include refusal to go to school or to participate in school activities and refusal to attend social events.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety is when a child is afraid to leave her parents and feels that something bad is going to happen to her or her parents while they are apart. When your child is quite young, it is developmentally appropriate for her to not want to be away from you. However, as a child ages, she is expected to be more comfortable separating from her parents or primary caretaker, usually in preschool and by kindergarten. The Worry Monster tells many kids they will not be okay without their parents, causing intense and scary worry and fear.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is a term familiar to many people because so many of our veterans experience it once they come home from war. They have experienced various traumas, and they have nightmares or flashbacks to the incidents. This same term also applies to anyone, including a child, who experiences some kind of frightening trauma and cannot seem to recover from it. Usually it is a situation in which there is intense fear of permanent injury or damage. Sometimes it can be a near death experience or watching someone else’s near death experience. A child watching parents physically fight may fear the death or severe harm of a parent. A child who is abused or experiences harsh physical punishment can develop PTSD. A child with PTSD may experience emotional numbing, nightmares, and flashbacks of the traumatic experience. The child will then avoid situations that remind him of the traumatic situation, and he may be jumpy and nervous, and/or may have extreme emotional meltdowns. This can also happen when a child has severe and chronic negative experiences at school.
Perfectionism is not an actual anxiety diagnosis but it can definitely wreak havoc with our lives and be pervasive and debilitating for our children. The core feature of perfectionism is a fear of failure. The perfectionist feels that we can never be good enough– that there is always more that can be done. This kind of thinking is typically negative, self-critical, defeating and can lead to avoidance. A child would rather not try a new task, for example, than risk not doing it well or failing.
Is the Worry Monster visiting your child without an invitation? Remember, just because your child may be experiencing some of the above, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a “diagnosis”. However, If any of these sound like something you are going through with your own child, or something your child may be experiencing, make sure to check this blog in two weeks when I lay out some solid techniques to help your child empower themselves against this pesky and annoying bully. If you are concerned about the level of your child’s worry or fear, please talk to your child’s doctor or counselor.
This blog originally appeared on Patch.com. The content was adapted from Chapter 3 of my new book Make Your Worrier a Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Child’s Fears from Great Potential Press. A companion book written just for children is also available —From Worrier to Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Fears.
Dan Peters, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and co-founder of the Summit Center, which provides educational and neuropsychological assessments, consultation, and treatment for children, parents, adults, and families. Using a strength-based approach, Summit Center’s team of professionals help individuals and families maximize their developmental potential.