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What is normal anxiety?

Description of what 'normal anxiety' is.
A mother holding her child
© University of East Anglia

Even in the best of situations, all children experience some anxiety in the form of worry, apprehension, dread, fear or distress.

Occasional nervousness and fleeting anxieties occur when a child is first faced with an unfamiliar or especially stressful situation. It can be an important protection or signal for caution in certain situations. In fact, there are specific expected fears that accompany each stage of child development.

Many children have fears and worries and may feel sad and hopeless from time to time. Strong fears may appear at different times during development. For example, toddlers are often very distressed about being away from their parents, even if they are safe and cared for.

Although some fears and worries are typical in children, persistent or extreme forms of fear and sadness could be due to anxiety or depression. From toddlers to teens, life’s challenges may be met with a temporary retreat from the situation, a greater reliance on parents for reassurance, a reluctance to take chances, and a wavering confidence. Typically, these concerns will resolve when the child learns to master the situation or the situation changes. Incorporating their newfound abilities, whether it is mastering a new school, taking tests, encountering dogs, children move on from their fears and have no lasting ill-effects.

Typical childhood fears include:

In Infancy

In response to a growing ability to differentiate familiar faces (parents) from unfamiliar, stranger anxiety (clinging and crying when a stranger approaches) develops around 7-9 months and typically resolves by end of first year.

Early childhood

As a healthy attachment to parents grows, separation anxiety (crying, sadness, fear of desertion upon separation) emerges around one year and improves over the next 3 years, resolving in most children by the end of nursery. As children’s worlds expand, they may fear new and unfamiliar situations, and real and imagined dangers from big dogs, to spiders, to monsters.

Children from age 3-6 are trying to master what is real and what is not, and until this is resolved, they may have difficulty with costumed characters, ghosts, and supernatural beings. While trying to master fears of what could be, they may struggle with the dark, closets, and under the bed. As a child learns how to manage and put aside these fears, their ability to sleep alone will be secured.

School-aged children

Each year, with access to new information, children begin to fear real world dangers – crime, divorce, illness, or drugs for example. With experience, they learn that these risks can exist as remote, rather than imminent dangers.

In middle school, the growing importance of social status leads to social comparisons and worries about social acceptance. Concerns about academic and athletic performance, and social group identification are normal. Learning about various physical and mental health diseases in school may lead to some temporary concerns about risk and safety (fear of becoming pregnant if the right precautions are not taken).

Teenagers continue to be focused on social acceptance, but with a greater concern for finding a group that reflects their chosen identity. Concerns about the larger world, moral issues and their future successes are common.

© University of East Anglia
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