No, That’s Not a Normal Part of Child Development

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Sometimes, I wish my head could keep up with my conversations – that I had the right response at the right moment.   A little while ago someone who rarely asks me about my work asked how my practice was going.  I responded by mentioning how many young boys and girls with some very big fears had recently been brought by their parents for treatment.  Some, I noted, were having full blown panic attacks.

Now I was fairly certain my conversation partner would say something like, “Wow.  What do you do in situations like that?” or perhaps, “It’s good that they are getting help now.”  Instead, what I got was, “Parents can be so over-reactive.  They take a normal part of child development and turn it into a problem.  If they would just leave it alone, it would pass.”

This is where my spinning head could not keep up.  In part, my professional ego was a little bruised (“Don’t you think I can tell the difference between a child who’s going through a normal phase and one who is truly suffering?” ).  At the same time I was feeling a little defensive about the parents who had the courage and the sensitivity to bring their child for a consultation.  Frankly, I think it takes a lot of guts to admit that something is going on with your child and to reach out for help.

Yes, sometimes parents do overreact about something that is a childhood phase.  They love their kids.  They want to see them happy and healthy.  It’s part of what they do.  At the same time, too often children’s and teens’ emotional issues are overlooked or not attended to.  According to the Child Mind Institute[i], more than 15 million children in the U.S. have diagnosable mental health or learning disorders, yet less than half of them will actually get help.  In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)[ii] notes that the results of a large national survey indicate that approximately 8 percent of teens have an anxiety disorder.  Their symptoms appeared around age 6.  However, less than one-fifth of these teens ever received mental health care.

What’s sad and concerning about this is the loss of potential and the unnecessary suffering – for both parents and kids.  There are effective treatments available that can help get these kids back on track and the whole family functioning better.  But how does a parent know when something is normal childhood development and when it is time to seek help?

Anxiety is a normal part of life for us all.  For a child, there are certain worries and fears we can expect at different ages.  For example, very young children may be afraid of strangers, the dark, imaginary monsters, costumes, being separated from parents and getting hurt.  Older children may worry about school performance or making friends.  If we provide reassurance and are supportive as children learn to deal with these things, in most cases they will eventually resolve.  When a fear or worry persists, creates great distress for the child and interferes with the child’s functioning at home, school or with friends it has crossed over to becoming a problem.  This is when it is time to seek help.

But when you seek help aren’t you just pandering to the child’s fears and making them an unnecessary focus?  Well, the truth is that when adult anxiety sufferers are asked about the history of their symptoms, a high percentage of them actually have symptoms dating back to childhood.  Their symptoms did not go away .   So treating children for anxiety may not only help the child from spending needless time suffering, but may help prevent anxiety disorders in adults as well.

Getting back to my conversation, if my head had been working at the proper speed, I would have said something along these lines:

“At times, you are correct, we as parents do overreact, but we also frequently under-react. Actually what’s going on with these kids isn’t part of normal child development and these parents aren’t over-reactive at all.  I admire them.  They recognized that their children were suffering and that this was not going to go away on its own.  They were forward thinking enough to reach out and get help.  Hopefully we will be able to prevent a lot of suffering now and in the future.”

I can’t make time stand still and give a well-composed answer.  For now, at least I am on the record.  Children with anxiety disorders deserve their suffering to be recognized and they deserve the opportunity to get better.  Bravo to the parents who have the courage to reach out.

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[i] “Why Speak Up.”  Speak Up for Kids: Child Mind Institute.  Child Mind Institute. Web. 16 July, 2013.  <http://speakup.childmind.org/why_speak_up/&gt;.
[ii] “Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents (Fact Sheet).”  National Institute of Mental Health.  National Institute of Mental Health.  Web. 16 July, 2013. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders-in-children-and-adolescents/index.shtml.
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