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Think back over the school year: how many days did your child miss because he started the morning with a tummy ache or headache that evaporated as soon as you agreed to keep him home? How many days did you insist your child go to school despite her complaint of not feeling well, only to discover that her day went fine once she got there?

Anxiety can tie a stomach into knots, cause a head to pound, even create diarrhea, vomiting, and light-headedness. Although the school year is nearly done, the prospect of anxiety-induced illness continues, looming over summer camp and other stressful activities. If anxiety is making your child sick, what can you do?

According to child psychologist Golda Ginsburg of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, anxious children often have anxious parents. In fact, anxious parents are more likely – two to seven times more likely – to have anxious children. Part of this may be inherited temperament but Ginsburg believes that a lot of childhood anxiety is learned. Parents who are fearful, who encourage their children to be extra cautious, and who hover over them in a worried way communicate to their kids that the world is dangerous. No wonder these kids want to stay safe in bed!

Of course, we worry about the dangers toddlers can get into and we’re constantly on the lookout for dangerous situations. But as kids get older, parents need to lighten up. They need to permit children to handle things on their own and build up confidence in themselves. Small, planned exercises in self-reliance are important to children’s development.

At the same time, sometimes children are placed in situations that are too competitive, too stressful, and too frightening. A coach who yells and is mean is scary no matter how good a coach you think he is. A teacher who is demanding and unhelpful creates stress even if the class has great test scores. A parent who insists on perfection from a child undermines the love between them and causes stress. It’s difficult, sometimes, to see a situation from the child’s point of view. A child is not being soft or lazy if he complains about being under too great a strain. What seems un-stressful to you may provoke an anxiety attack in your child.

If your child seems to be letting anxiety make her sick, what can you do? Here are some tips.

  1. Talk it over later. You might keep your child home when she’s anxiously ill or you might send her off and hope she makes it through the day. Whatever you choose, at the end of the day, when things are calmer, ask about it. Remind her that she was feeling sick but then got to feeling much better. Ask if there was something about the day that made her worried. Find out what was going on, at a time after the matter is settled.
  2. Normalize fear. Never tell a child “you’re not afraid of something like that!” or “only a baby would be afraid of that!” If a child is afraid, he’s afraid. Let him say so without being criticized for it.
  3. Be matter-of-fact. When your child says he’s feeling nervous, talk about that. Accept what he’s saying. But don’t make it your problem. Being worried is part of living an interesting life. Ask, “what’s the worst that could happen?” and talk about how he would manage “the worst.”
  4. Mention it when you feel anxious or afraid. Children think that adults are always in control. When you’re feeling worried or nervous, especially about doing something new, say so. Let your child encourage you. Let her see that being anxious isn’t a reason to stop trying.
  5. Manage your own worries. Don’t hover too much or let your child see you hovering over him. Don’t text him every other minute when he’s away. If you tend to be a worrier, don’t infect your child with your anxiety.

As children grow in self-confidence and experience, they are less likely to feel so overmatched by the day’s prospects that they make themselves sick with worry. Giving them the support and skills to manage themselves is a good thing to do.



© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Join Dr. Anderson in an online conference for teachers and parents. Find out more at Quality Conference for Early Childhood Leaders.