What's Normal, What's Not
It's typical for children to feel nervous sometimes, especially at certain stages of development. Separation anxiety causes many older babies and toddlers to sob when they're left at day care, for instance, but that's actually a good sign that they're attached to their parents. Between ages 2 and 7, kids often develop sudden but temporary fears of the dark, strangers, dogs, bees, or other specific things. Your child's blossoming imagination, along with his increased exposure to books and the media, may even lead him to invent things to be afraid of, like talking trees. Older kids who watch the news on TV may worry about fires, car accidents, or war. "Luckily, most kids are able to manage their fears by the time they're 7 or 8," says Andrew R. Eisen, Ph.D., director of the Child Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in Hackensack, New Jersey.
However, studies have shown that up to 15 percent of children suffer from anxiety that's severe enough to impact their daily lives. They experience physical "fight or flight" symptoms: a pounding heart, dry mouth, and sick stomach. "A kid who suffers from anxiety may feel like he is going crazy, or even dying, because he doesn't know how to calm himself down," says Michael Southam-Gerow, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond. While a child can certainly become anxious in response to a traumatic event or specific stressors in his environment, experts believe that vulnerability to anxiety is usually inherited.
Unfortunately, many parents and teachers perceive symptoms of anxiety -- like refusing to go to school or use a public restroom -- as defiance. Anxiety may also be mistaken for (or even mask) other developmental disorders, such as ADHD, depression, or learning disabilities, so it's important to identify anxiety early and help your child learn to manage it. "Otherwise, he'll continue to avoid challenging situations and is likely to grow up to be an anxious or depressed adult," says Kathleen Trainor, Psy.D., a child psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, in Boston.