Management of ANXIETY Begins at Home

By Mendaglio, Sal | Parenting for High Potential, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Management of ANXIETY Begins at Home


Mendaglio, Sal, Parenting for High Potential


Parents of gifted children are often concerned about their children's anxiety, and with good reason. Research indicates that 12% to 20% of all children experience anxiety severe enough to refer them for treatment, and approximately 3% to 5% of all children are diagnosed with a variety of anxiety disorders.1

Regrettably, children do not always express their anxiety in the form of "Mom, I am anxious," or "Dad, I am afraid." Their expression of anxiety-or lack of expression-depends largely on the child's makeup, and is often expressed in different ways. Some children cry or behave aggressively, while others withdraw from the situation.

Though research on anxiety does not indicate the number of gifted children included in studies, it's reasonable to assume that representative samples include children who are gifted.

While the experience of anxiety is disturbing enough, if untreated, anxiety can cause serious consequences such as academic underachievement, substance abuse, and increased risk of other psychiatric disorders.2

Sources of Anxiety in Children

Researchers have identified several general sources of anxiety in children. These sources include genetics,3 child temperament,4 parent-child early attachment, parental disapproval and/or criticism, and parental anxiety.5 There are countless other sources of anxiety, such as a child being rejected or bullied by age mates, night terrors, and various phobias, but these are not addressed here.

In my work, I have found that parental anxiety is a strong predictor of children's anxiety.6 This means that if a child is faced with an anxious mother or father, the child will most likely experience anxiety. In addition to parental anxiety, I contend that there are parenting situations that may contribute to a child experiencing anxiety. These include:

* Inconsistent parenting, which creates unpredictability for children.

* A child not knowing whether or not a behavior is acceptable.

* Parental conflict in the presence of children, which includes both arguments unrelated to children and disagreements regarding parenting.

* Discussion of adult matters, such as issues related to other family members, medical issues, and current events, in the child's presence.

However, disapproval and criticism are among the most pervasive sources of anxiety in children and require special attention. Parents are the most influential people in children's lives, and I believe parental approval is a primary motivating force for children: Children want their parents' approval 24/7. But, in raising children, parents find occasions when they must c o m m u n i c a t e disapproval of their children's choices and b e h a v i o r s .

Even if done in a gentle, loving manner, behavior correction is a form of disapproval, and may create anxiety in the child. This means that normal parenting in itself can create a certain amount of anxiety in children. I call this necessary anxiety, which cannot be avoided. However, parents can avoid unnecessary anxiety, caused by their own feelings of intense frustration and anger in parent-child interactions.

To appreciate my perspective on children's anxiety, it is important to take into account two factors: intensity and expression. Children's experience of anxiety may be of low or high intensity depending on the home psychological environment. For example, gentle parental correction of misbehavior leads to rather low intensity anxiety; rough parental correction leads to high intensity.

While some sources of anxiety are common to all children, parents, teachers, and caregivers of gifted children need to know that gifted kids also may have unique sources of anxiety. These include:

* Social coping, where gifted children feel different, leading to their experience of social rejection.7

* "Big-Fish-Little-Pond (BFLP) Effect," which refers to the deflated self-concept gifted children might feel when moving from a mixed ability to similar ability programming. …

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