Aside from the individual stressors that may make a child anxious, there are a number of factors that can contribute to a child developing problems with anxiety. Here are some of the primary contributors to childhood anxiety disorders:
The role of genetics in child anxiety
There appears to be at least a partial genetic component when it comes to a child’s vulnerability to anxiety. (Rutter et al., 1990) Just as children are born with different innate temperaments, some children seem to be natural worriers who are more prone to anxiety than others. Research has shown that some children are born with hypersensitive nervous systems that cause them to have lower thresholds towards anxiety and fear. (Mussen, Conger & Kagan, 1974)
However, any genetic dispositions that exist must work through and interact with variables in the environment, and so even children predisposed to anxiety can thrive in the right setting and will never develop an anxiety disorder. It also works the other way around: children who are not naturally susceptible can nonetheless struggle with anxiety problems, especially if they have parents or other caretakers who model anxious responses towards life. (Krohne & Hock, 1991)
Anxiety in the parent
Children absorb the mannerisms of every adult they interact with, and so if a parent or other family member has problems with anxiety, it’s very likely that these anxious tendencies will end up transferring to the children. (Barrett, Rapee, Dudds & Ryan, 1996)
A child’s brain is equipped with systems of mirror neurons, which are devoted exclusively toward mimicking what they see from others. This helps children learn about the world and aids in the acquisition of new skills, since their brain is in essence constantly practicing the things they observe others do. But it also makes them vulnerable to picking up a caregiver’s bad habits or psychopathology, since their brains are also busy mimicking a parent who freaks out over every little thing or who shows excessive anxiety towards life. In fact, it’s been shown that a single exposure to a fearful reaction from an adult is enough to transfer the same fears to children. (Ohman, xxxx) So when parents exhibit anxious tendencies in front of their children, they are quite literally wiring a child’s brain towards anxiety problems. (Krohne & Hock, 1991) Around 70% of adults who develop anxiety disorders attribute their problems to modeling behaviors form adults in their life (Ost, 1987), and treatment for childhood anxiety often involves coaching parents in non-anxious behaviors and better ways of responding to a child’s distress. When the parent’s anxiety decreases, so does the child’s. (Choate, 2005)
Perfectionists demand that every little detail be perfect, and if it isn’t, even seemingly small issues that have no direct impact on life can become a source of major anxiety. So children who grow up in a perfectionist environment – especially those living with demanding parents who expect their children to perform and behave flawlessly – will almost certainly develop problems with anxiety. It’s perfectly fine for parents to push kids to excel, but within reason; when the balance tips to the point that a child feels like he or she has little leeway for mistakes, it develops a perfectionist mindset that will impair a child for the rest of their life.
Over-scheduling and chaotic environments
Susan Elkind coined the phrase “the hurried child” in a book of the same title, describing children who had nearly every minute of their life filled in by parents with some type of structured activity. They raced around from school to sports to music or dance instruction, having little to no down time to simply relax without anything structured to do. This can lead to child anxiety problems.
Such a rushed schedule tends to create added stress. Parents are on edge as they try to herd children around to these different tasks, demanding punctuality and leaving little patience for any noncompliant behavior on the part of the child. This creates stress for both parent and child, and usually leaves a parent modeling all types of anxious behaviors that children will pick up. It also robs children of the type of relaxed, unstructured play time that children need for emotional regulation. These factors combine to create anxious children.
Also, as Dr. William Doherty notes, “The brain gets used to a lot of stimulation, and when you are faced with having nothing to do, you get anxious. The panic you feel is the fear of withdrawal from your overscheduled lifestyle, and a kid’s brain is even more susceptible to this than an adults.” (Parents, Sept. 2012, p. 169)
Events that cause a real or perceived loss of control
Early experiences that foster a diminished sense of control over the environment can contribute to vulnerability towards anxiety. (Chorpita & Barlow, 1998) Such experiences can include things like frequent moves, instability in caretakers, child abuse, divorce, foster care, living through a natural disaster, or other events that leave a child feeling helpless.
Overprotection and over-controlling environments
Children of overprotective parents are far more prone to developing childhood anxiety disorders. (Muris & Merckelbach, 1998) This is for several reasons. First, overprotective parents tend to exhibit anxiety about things that might happen to their child, and this general anxiety ends up transferring to the kids. Second, because of the way overprotective parents hover around the children, swooping in at the drop of a hat to intervene, it sends an implicit message to the child that they can’t handle things on their own. This subconscious belief contributes to anxiety problems.
Finally, children who are overprotected get no practice in solving problems or coping with stress on their own. Thus they remain underdeveloped in areas of social-emotional competence, and are easily overwhelmed when problems arise. Put these three things together and you get the perfect storm for creating anxiety problems in a child. (You can read more on the harm of overprotective parenting in our books Children & Adversity as well as Child Maltreatment: A Cross-Comparison.) As such, overcontrolling behavior on the part of parents has been identified as an important factor in anxiety development. (Chorpita, Brown & Barlow, 1998)
So you might want to step back and take a critical look at yourself to see if any of these environmental aggravators could be contributing to your little one’s anxious behaviors. Often times, making changes in lifestyle that address these issues is enough to conquer a child’s anxiety disorder, and this is always the most productive and beneficial way to deal with the issue.