How to Know if Fear is Just Childhood Development
Or a Mental Health Concern
By Dr. Robin Alter
“The concept of childhood emerged during the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly through the educational theories of the philosopher John Locke and the growth of books for and about children. Previous to this point, children were often seen as incomplete versions of adults” (Wikipedia). These days children often have the vocabulary of an adult and sometimes may have amassed many facts from their watching You-Tube or the internet. Many adults may then surmise that the children are more capable in managing their lives than they really are. In the last century thanks to psychological and neuropsychological research, we know much more about the ways in which children’s brains differ from adults or even adolescents, hence how thinking, feeling and behaviour change as we age and mature. We now know a lot more about what to expect and not to expect from children, what is normal childhood behaviour and what might be clinical problems.
Stranger Anxiety: Anxiety is an emotion that is common amongst all ages. It is the emotion that warns us about possible threats and dangers and hence keeps us safe. There are many normal childhood anxieties. Between the ages of 6 months to 3 years many children experience and express Stranger Anxiety. One of the first things children pay attention to in controlled studies is faces. This is so they can identify their caregivers. The infant is more interested in those who will take care of him/her and less interested in those who might be indifferent. This makes a lot of sense when you’re vulnerable and dependent. Children usually outgrow this fear and expand their comfort zone through learning that many adults are kind and may even be somewhat interested in them. They also learn it through modelling. The caregiver adult shows the child that this person is safe and should be included in the safe zone. If this behaviour persists past age 4, it is less common and might be a precursor to more clinical problems.
Separation Anxiety: From toddler age till 5 or 6 many children experience Separation Anxiety. Again, thinking about their own safety and survival, children prefer what is known to what is unknown. Sometimes they experience the beginning of school, or a change in Day Care, as being thrown into a new and unknown environment. If parents and staff model appropriate “brave” behaviour, they soon learn that the new environment is a safe one. If this behaviour persists after a month or two, it is possible that there is actually something unsafe happening, such as aggressive behaviour on the part of another child or children, or in rare cases from the adult, which would need to be addressed. If it persists through later childhood or even adolescent, it is likely a more serious problem, possibly the individual is having trouble adapting to changes in general, which could suggest a more pervasive problem that needs professional attention.
Fear: Once a child’s imagination develops, which can be as young as age 2, all kinds of fears can pop up and this is very normal. Children don’t understand as well as adults do, the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary. The normal fears, to name a few, are monsters, the dark, large threatening objects, bees, swimming pools, thunderstorms and other loud noises, escalators, bad guys, clowns, etc. By the time the child reaches elementary school, the list expands to rational fears, such as fear of the real dangers of the world--natural disasters, such as fires and tornadoes, as well as traumatic events caused by other people, such as being kidnapped, robbed or assaulted. The ultimate fear, which is also shared by most adults is death or critical illness. Children are also fearful of being mistreated by other children and/or adults, or being excluded and rejected, as well as family conflicts and separations. All of these fears are rational, i.e. they make sense. They are normal. If however, they become so pervasive that the child begins to avoid normal and expected activities, such as school and social events, then they are out of line and need to be addressed.
Behaviour: And what about behaviour? We expect babies to cry because they have no other way of communicating. But children cry too, even when they have the ability to speak. We now know that self-control comes when the higher-order areas of the brain develop, such as the prefrontal lobe. But that development occurs slowly and it not fully complete until a person is in their mid- 20s. This development allows the person to stop and reflect for a moment or two about the right course of action to take in any particular situation. Children, in general, don’t do this kind of reflection as much as adults do and therefore often make wrong choices about behaviour. Where an adult might stop and say to him or herself “Gee, I can’t think straight. I feel exhausted. I’ve got a lot going on. I think I’m in overload. I probably need to take a break. I think I might go to bed early tonight and hopefully feel better in the morning,” a child will rarely if ever talk to themselves that way. When a child is in overload– too many things hitting them all at once, or something unexpected and negative happening and catching him or her off- guard, they might have a meltdown, cry, or even lash out in anger at someone near them. Since the brain has not completed the circuits connecting the primitive parts of the brain to the more advanced, the entire brain gets activated and you never know what’s going to come out. This is entirely normal during childhood when all the different parts of the brain have not yet learned how to work with one another. With an adult’s help, during childhood, a child can practice making the proper connections to the higher levels of thinking in the frontal lobe and learn how to make their brain work in a more mature and rational way. This doesn’t happen overnight and needs lots of practice. But with patience and determination it will eventually become a learned response. Ah peace at last!