With the ris­ing rates of anx­i­ety we re­search the way it af­fects lit­tle ones

Little Treasures - - CON­TENTS -

Med­i­cal ad­vance­ments mean par­ents can find out de­tailed in­for­ma­tion about their baby well in ad­vance of their due date, if they so choose. But the ques­tion many par­ents pon­der more than any other can’t be an­swered by screen­ings and scans: “What will my baby be like? Re­laxed, highly strung, friendly, moody, a chat­ter­box, se­ri­ous, funny, ner­vous, out­go­ing, volatile, a lit­tle charmer?” Rais­ing a baby into a well-ad­justed and con­fi­dent child is high on the parental wish list.

Anx­i­ety in ba­bies and tod­dlers

When a child has reached the age of six or seven, anx­i­ety is eas­ier to di­ag­nose as the traits can be more eas­ily pin­pointed. Ba­bies and tod­dlers aren’t so straight­for­ward. As clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Dr Cate Hey ex­plains, “Anx­i­ety isn’t typ­i­cally a term we ap­ply to ba­bies. Ba­bies and tod­dlers are thought to have tem­per­a­ment (which later is de­scribed as per­son­al­ity). Some ba­bies may be ob­served to have a ‘slow to warm up’ tem­per­a­ment style, and dis­play what looks like anx­ious be­hav­iour, but we wouldn’t say they’re ‘suf­fer­ing from anx­i­ety’”.

What causes anx­i­ety?

“Anx­i­ety has both ge­netic and en­vi­ron­men­tal com­po­nents. If there is anx­i­ety in the fam­ily, then it’s some­thing to be aware of as your child grows. As the ge­netic com­po­nent can’t be avoided, it’s help­ful to work on not trans­fer­ring anx­i­ety through parental worry and en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors,” says Dr Hey. For many ba­bies and tod­dlers, feel­ing anx­ious or up­set is a tem­po­rary re­sponse to a sit­u­a­tion they’re in right at that mo­ment. Over­stim­u­la­tion, peo­ple around them be­hav­ing er­rat­i­cally, too much at­ten­tion from strangers, or think­ing they’re be­ing left or ig­nored by their par­ent/reg­u­lar care­giver can trig­ger a melt­down. Some­times, what we might view as an anx­ious re­ac­tion is sim­ply a de­vel­op­men­tal stage. As Dr Hey points out, “Ba­bies can dis­play be­hav­iours such as star­tle re­sponses (where they fling their arms out and cry) in re­ac­tion to hear­ing a loud noise or be­ing put down, which is a re­flex rather than a dis­play of anx­ious be­hav­iour.” It’s im­por­tant to note that if you suf­fer from anx­i­ety your­self, and/or if your baby dis­plays what ap­pears to be anx­ious be­hav­iour, it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean they’ll de­velop into an anx­ious child.

Sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety

This type of anx­i­ety is a very nor­mal de­vel­op­men­tal mile­stone, usu­ally kick­ing in be­tween six to twelve months of age. Many par­ents are flum­moxed when their so­cial but­ter­fly baby who had a smile for every­one sud­denly screams the walls down at the mere hint

of be­ing left. When your baby re­alises that you are a loved and needed in­di­vid­ual in their world, they worry that you might not be com­ing back when they can’t see you. As dif­fi­cult as it is to wave good­bye to a tearstained lit­tle face, try to feel re­as­sured that most ba­bies set­tle within 5-10 min­utes of be­ing handed over.

If the anx­i­ety starts to grow...

Any dis­plays of be­hav­iour from your child that worry you are worth talk­ing to your doc­tor about. Dr Hey ad­vises, “Al­ways talk to your GP (or Plun­ket) first to rule out any phys­i­o­log­i­cal/med­i­cal as­pects that could be con­tribut­ing to your child’s be­hav­iour be­fore go­ing down the path of con­sid­er­ing anx­i­ety.” While it’s tech­ni­cally still early days in terms of per­son­al­ity de­vel­op­ment, some of the more com­mon red flags that you should raise with your doc­tor in­clude:* Fears and pho­bias that take over their life (and yours), over and above the usual mild wor­ries about mon­sters un­der the bed or be­ing wary of bugs Need­ing an ex­tremely rigid rou­tine to func­tion, and/or in­sist­ing on rit­u­als Height­ened sen­si­tiv­ity to noise, or to clothes (e.g. los­ing the plot about la­bels, seams, or any­thing that feels re­stric­tive) Avoid­ing all sit­u­a­tions where they might get messy hands Tak­ing picky eat­ing to the next level, per­haps eat­ing only a very lim­ited num­ber of foods, and gag­ging or re­act­ing hys­ter­i­cally if they ex­pe­ri­ence an un­ex­pected tex­ture Ex­ces­sively shad­ow­ing their par­ent/ care­giver, and hav­ing com­plete melt­downs if they can’t see you for a mo­ment, even in their own home Trou­ble with sleep­ing, want­ing a par­ent to al­ways lie down with them to fall asleep, and wak­ing through the night feel­ing scared. (*Source: Natasha Daniels, How To Par­ent Your Anx­ious Tod­dler)

Call­ing in the pro­fes­sion­als

Real­is­ing that your child needs tools from a psy­chol­o­gist to help them nav­i­gate their feel­ings can seem over­whelm­ing, but it doesn’t need to be. Dr Hey ex­plains the process: “Your GP can give you a re­fer­ral for a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist, or you may choose to find one on the ad­vice of a child­care ser­vice or friend who has been in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion. Of­ten the clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist will re­quest to see par­ents first to as­sess the ar­eas of con­cern, in­clud­ing look­ing at de­vel­op­men­tal, so­cial, learn­ing and health is­sues. Ap­point­ments may then be con­ducted with the child and par­ents, or the child on their own.”

Tips for eas­ing the ride

If your baby is cry­ing in­ces­santly, hold them closely to your chest while speak­ing in a gen­tle, sooth­ing tone to re­as­sure them. If you’re un­able to hold them (if you’re driv­ing, for ex­am­ple), try giv­ing them some­thing soft that has been close to your skin, such as a scarf. Your fa­mil­iar scent may help to calm them down un­til you can pick them up. With tod­dlers, crouch down to their eye level as you re­as­sure them. Most ba­bies and tod­dlers – espe­cially sen­si­tive ones – thrive on a ba­sic rou­tine. Know­ing what to ex­pect next can breed fa­mil­iar­ity and a sense of se­cu­rity. Their world is a small one, and it takes a while to learn how to cope with sur­prises. Try to re­mem­ber to ex­plain to them what is hap­pen­ing in their day as you move from one ac­tiv­ity or place to the next, even if they seem too lit­tle to un­der­stand you. To al­le­vi­ate sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety, al­low plenty of time for your lit­tle one to get fa­mil­iar with their care­giver be­fore you leave. You can also try dis­tract­ing with a new toy or one they haven’t seen for a while just be­fore you say good­bye. When drop­ping off at child­care, fol­low the same ‘good­bye rou­tine’ each day (e.g. set­tling them into an ac­tiv­ity, kiss­ing good­bye, wav­ing from the door­way) and then don’t hang around chat­ting to other par­ents or teach­ers. It can be up­set­ting for ba­bies and small chil­dren if they think you’ve gone then see you again. Fake your own con­fi­dence if you’re feel­ing wob­bly about leav­ing them, and don’t sneak out with­out say­ing good­bye or they may be­come more up­set look­ing for you. As much as pos­si­ble, try to stay calm when you feel anx­ious or stressed your­self. Ba­bies and tod­dlers are in­tu­itive, and will take their emo­tional cues from you. If you shriek and run away from a spi­der, they’ll learn that spi­ders are some­thing to be feared. If you’re rush­ing around and speak­ing loudly be­cause the fam­ily is run­ning late or you’re up­set about some­thing, they’ll take the hint that now is the time to freak out (which ex­plains why the more fran­tic you are, the big­ger their melt­down). As Dr Hey says, “How par­ents re­spond to their own stress is im­por­tant. Par­ents need to en­cour­age their chil­dren to sur­vive and deal with stress­ful sit­u­a­tions to give them a frame­work for later life.” De­mon­strat­ing that you have your own calm­ing down tech­niques – for ex­am­ple tak­ing deep breaths – sets an ex­am­ple to fol­low. 

Dr Cate Hey is a reg­is­tered clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist prac­tis­ing in Auck­land.

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