When I was a child/adolescent, I was diagnosed with a “nervous stomach.” Fifty years ago, I don’t know how much my doctor knew about the correlation between anxiety and the body.

My doctor never used the word “anxiety” to describe my condition, nor was I ever offered any counsel regarding how my environment or what I was dealing with could be contributing to the physical manifestations I was experiencing.

Today the CDC says that 9.4% of children ages 3-17 years (approximately 5.8 million) were diagnosed with anxiety in 2016-2019. (1) Those are just the diagnosed numbers.  A Harvard Medical School survey shows that over 30% of adults deal with an anxiety disorder at some stage in their lives. (2)

As a pastoral counselor, I work with both adults and children who suffer from anxiety-related issues.

Here’s one common issue denominator with both adults and children that suffer from anxiety: avoidance. It makes sense. If a thing, person, situation, or event causes you anxiety, most people discover that simply avoiding that thing, person, situation or event causes the anxiety to decrease.

But let me show you how fear begins to win the day with a child. Suppose your child decides that she doesn’t want to sleep alone in her bed. She says she’s afraid. So, you let her sleep with you or perhaps with you. Perhaps you don’t want your child to feel afraid. You don’t want to deal with the crying. You set some boundaries. But you constantly allow your child to break them and she ends up in your bed. Eventually, you just give up. You say, “This will not be happening when she’s 16 so I’m not worried about it.”

Perhaps not. However, one thing that does happen is a pattern of avoidance has begun. Children learn early that the way to deal with anxiety is to avoid it. The child learns that the way to deal with fear is to avoid it. That is a pattern that will not prove useful to her as she continues to grow. The child has also learned how to manipulate you.

This is not to say that every crying three-year-old should not be allowed to sleep in a parent’s bed on any given night. It is to say that children are more intelligent than we sometimes give them credit for. They learn what we teach them. Children must learn to differentiate between danger that is real and danger that is a false alarm.

Children who learn to avoid everything they are afraid of to reduce their anxieties greatly reduce their opportunities to overcome their fears and achieve worthwhile goals. Parents who codify these avoidance behaviors cripple their children’s chances to reach their full potential and discover their true capabilities and discover the joy that comes with overcoming the limitations they thought they had.

The truth is all of us have anxieties. Stress is normal. The key to anxiety is not to avoid it but to learn to manage it. When we learn to live with our anxiety and see it as a manageable part of being human, it does not have to cripple us or sideline us.

Part of the way this is done is to learn how our brain works and how our brain separates real danger from “false alarm danger.”

I will share more about this in my next article.

If you are experiencing issues with anxiety or if you have a child experiencing issues with anxiety, I can help you. Reach out to me, Dr. John Michael Helms, at 706-983-1356. You can email me at johnmichaelhelms@gmail.com or through my website at johnmichaelhelms.com. There you will find information about my counseling services and rates.

1 https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/features/anxiety-depression-children.html

2 https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder

Photo Credit: https://mypts.com/blog/behavioral-health-services/school-avoidance-behavior/