Separating Normal Anxiety Versus Clinical Anxiety

Mar 28, 2022


In our introductory blog post, we discussed how we each are primarily “testing psychologists.” This means that we are helping families determine whether their child meets diagnostic criteria related to their concerns (although our primary goal is to equip parents to help their children overcome any areas of difficulty). A frequent question from parents we get is, “Does my child have an anxiety disorder?”

First, we want to emphasize that just like sadness and anger, anxiety is considered a basic human emotion. It can be tricky as we have differences in wording for other emotions, such as sadness versus depression, but it is not as clear with anxiety!

While it can be very distressing at times, anxiety serves an important role in our lives as it tells our brains to be alert and keep us from danger. This looks like flight (running away), fight (physically lashing out), or freeze (that deer in the headlights look). Also, there are certain points in life when anxiety peaks, but is considered to be a typical part of development. For example, separation anxiety is expected starting in infancy to toddlerhood. This follows their development of object permanence, a cognitive skill in which children realize an object still exists even when it is not currently in view.

As we grow, some level of worry can also be beneficial, such as making us do homework because we are concerned for our grades, or making us reflect on bad choices and how others may view us.

Because anxiety is a common emotion that all humans experience – we should not be surprised when we see our children experience anxious distress at times. Just like our children will experience sadness or anger in response to certain situations, our children will also experience anxiety throughout their life! The goal is to equip our children well!

Okay, you are probably still thinking, “How can I tell whether my child feels anxious versus has an anxiety disorder?”

Great question.

An anxiety disorder, versus just feeling anxiety from time to time, has a few key components:

  • A pattern of worry thoughts which are difficult to control or manage.
  • Disruption to daily functioning (e.g., hard for your child to be separated from caregivers, avoid situations which cause them distress, fear of answering questions/speaking in class due to fear of judgment)
  • Physical or cognitive symptoms such as irritability, poor attention, disrupted sleep, stomach aches, etc.

With an anxiety disorder, the brain continues to provide the fight/flight/freeze response at times when it is NOT in danger. This can be frustrating as a parent because you may feel your child is acting irrationally to a normal situation – and you are right. BUT, your child’s brain is having difficulty determining which situations they should be protecting themselves from. They need to develop skills to think though situations while also learning calming strategies.

Let’s take the separation anxiety example. This changes from a part of development into a disorder when it continues past an expected age range and maintains or increases in intensity. For example, if your child struggles to go to school or to a friend’s house because they are separated from you, desires to always be in the same room of the house as you, and has thoughts related to something bad happening to their parents or themselves. Children often have thoughts related to their parents dying (such as a car crash) and think more often than other children about kidnapping. A key component is that while other children may have these thoughts (and that can still be considered typical) they can reflect on the potential danger and dismiss those thoughts quickly.

Because clinical anxiety is an icky feeling they struggle to make stop, your child will try to avoid feeling it as often as possible. So, if it happens when they are separated, they will ensure they are always with their parent. The problem is this reinforces avoidance. We need to have similar expectations for their behavior, such as being able to go to school, but their ability to meet this goal will be at a slower pace and with support.

Anxiety continues to increase every year. Currently, anxiety rates in children are around 7%, which is 4.4 million kids between the ages of 3-17. Adult rates are around 19%.

So, if anxiety disorder rates are continuing to increase, and it can be a typical emotion that everyone experiences– What are you supposed to do?

Whether your child is suffering from typical anxiety or clinical levels of anxiety – the goal for both is to teach them skills to handle intense emotions. We should NEVER be telling them their feelings are wrong. Once they learn strategies to overcome anxiety, they will be empowered to handle difficult situations which naturally results in them experiencing less distress.

How can you help?

  • Teach calming strategies when your child is calm (We have some great printables and breathing strategies in our Parenting 101 course! And check our previous social media posts on mindfulness!)
  • Support your child in moments of anxiety to calm first, using strategies already learned, in order to return their body to a normal state (and out of fight/flight/freeze)
  • Teach them questions they can ask themselves to think through situations (e.g., “Am I 100% sure ____ will happen?” “What can I do to handle this situation?” “Does ____’s opinion reflect everyone else’s?”)
  • Check out the books we will be posting which will help you support your child!

Parents also experience anxiety, so these tips can work for the whole family!

We are believers in the power of therapy! Counseling is an opportunity to develop skills that we can continue to use through life – social/emotional intelligence should be considered just as important as other skills like reading and math. Research continues to demonstrate that social/emotional intelligence is linked to higher rates of success, even more than IQ!

If you aren't already, follow along on Insta and Facebook to see more about anxiety and other important topics!

If you haven't already, check out the free video from our course, "Love, Like, Enjoy" here:  Watch Free Video from Course

-Dr. Jordana and Dr. Erin

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