TYPICAL FEELINGS OF A CHILD: confusion, loss of control, apprehension, fearfulness, unsafe, unprotected, distrustful,
TYPICAL BELIEFS OF A CHILD: “I need information to protect myself.” “No one is shielding or protecting me.” “I’m all alone.” “Nobody else is like me.” “I need to tell others what to do.”
TYPICAL ACTIONS OF A CHILD: asking a lot of questions, finding ways to worry, fearful of noises, people, travel, any distribution in routine, wants constant reassurance, but doesn’t believe the person who is trying to reassure, hypervigilant, perfectionist.
TYPICAL FEELINGS OF AN ADOLESCENT: frustration, angry, sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, worry, confusion, lonely, misunderstood.
TYPICAL BELIEFS OF AN ADOLESCENT: “No one understands the importance of what is happening.” “No one is listening to me.” “No one believes me.” “I never get any respect.” “If I don’t do this, no one else will.” “I need to try to get someone to understand and act.”
TYPICAL ACTIONS OF AN ADOLESCENT: demanding, directive, procrastinate, blaming others, frustrated, angry, hostile, impatient, perfectionist, poor social skills.
Experiencing life teaches adults about the art of worrying. Some adults have come to the conclusion that a certain amount of worrying is part of the package in achieving success over the obstacles that are presented to them. Other adults have decided that worrying is useless, as it does not seem to accomplish very much, but takes a lot of emotional and physical energy.
We describe anxiety in different ways: worrying, butterflies, gut-check time, and nail chewing. Adults have found ways to deflect from the direct acknowledgment of the anxiety: “I bit off more than I can chew,” “I have too many things on my plate,” “Like Scarlet O’Hara, I’ll think about it tomorrow,” “The cat’s out of the bag,” and, “I didn’t ask for the raise.”
Children and adolescents are in the practicing stage for how to cope with worrying. They are teaching themselves what they want to believe as adults when it comes to worrying. Some children begin to extend the anxiety into areas called hypervigilance. That is, they begin to be very aware of their surroundings and the possible outcomes of the unknowns that are seen or heard or felt.
When anxiety invades in the child or adolescent’s life, to the point of being a focal point of her life, it is time to look for the causes of the anxiety. Anxious children feel the need to protect themselves from something or someone. They always want protection from the unknown. [The unknown can be as developmentally as simple as the monster in the closet, to as complex as someone is going to get me, no matter where I am.] And as they become more anxious, they doubt anyone can protect them. As their anxiety grows, so does the frustration of those trying to intervene to provide a solution and give the child or adolescent relief.
Some children need protection from a change in routines or living environment. Children can’t control the decisions that adults make. They have to adapt. Some children do not feel like they have the strength to adapt, but rather they have to persuade the adult to make a different decision. Thus, the child and the adult will enter into a power struggle, without the adult understanding why they are in the power struggle. Anxious children and adolescents do not appreciate change. These kids do not want others making decisions for them–they have a need to have all the information and be a part of the decision-making process. How else can they protect themselves?
Anxiety is often very apparent in children who have had a loved one die (parent, sibling, grandparent). That child begins to worry that the other loved ones will die. It is difficult to reassure a child that someone won’t die–accidents happen. However, under that fear of someone dying, is the absolute fear of “what happens to me if an important person in my life dies?”
When children and adolescents begin to focus on fears and anxieties, they begin to believe that there is no one who understands how they are feeling. This often brings about a child or adolescent who becomes angry, accusing parents and authority figures that no one is helping them. Quite often, whatever reassurance an adult can offer is of little value for the child or adolescent who truly believes that something fearful is about to happen or will most likely happen.
Children and adolescents suffer physical symptoms of anxiety, just like adults. They have the same complaints of headaches, insomnia, appetite suppression or insatiability, dermatology concerns, gastrointestinal upsets, and increased arguments with siblings and authority figures. Often they feel that they need to do everything just right, so they begin to demonstrate perfection as a need rather than a goal. Their anxieties never quite let them be successful in reaching their goal. Perfection is just out of reach. [Note all the holes made in school papers by the constant erasing and re-doing.]
Children and adolescents who are suffering from anxiety need relief from their self-defeating coping mechanism. Learning to live with frustration, the unknown, assumed fears, and without information and control are lessons that need to be perfected through practice.
Non-directive play therapy and Filial therapy are two excellent professional interventions for children from ages three to about eight or nine years old. An experiential modality such as Adventure Based Counseling is an excellent intervention for older children and adolescents to understand their need for total control, and how to cope appropriately when they don’t have that control. It is often quite helpful to have the caretakers of the anxious child or adolescent participate in the experiential intervention. As with most beliefs and feelings that children and adolescents have to contend with, the typical adult cognitive-behavioral therapeutic intervention (talk therapy) is woefully inadequate. Experiencing is an excellent teaching tool.
© 2011: BEA Goldfeder