“Lucy,” a shy, intelligent six-year-old, missed three days of school because she had stomachaches. The symptoms started the day after Lucy witnessed a loud argument while waiting for the bus with her babysitter. A “scary man” shouted at people waiting: “Watch out, you’re all going to be deported now!” Lucy didn’t know what “deported” meant, but she knew it was very bad. People told the man to leave and shouted insults at him that Lucy didn’t understand. The man finally left, shaking his fist and threatening “police action.” Lucy held her babysitter’s hand, looked up and noticed tears in her sitter’s eyes. Lucy’s stomach started to rumble. Sadly, cases like Lucy’s are becoming increasingly common.
I’m a child and adolescent psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with expertise in anxiety disorders. Since November’s election and the general political upheaval that accompanied it, medical professionals across the country have observed an uptick in agitation and anxiety among our young patients.
What do we know about how anxiety develops in children? And what can parents do to reduce it?
Kids Take on the Grown-Ups’ Anxiety
Strong emotions are contagious — particularly anxiety. And while anxiety spreads easily among us all, children are the most vulnerable. Elementary school children lack a fully developed ability to solve problems on their own, making it difficult for them to separate other people’s worries (especially adults’) from their own frightening fantasies.
Unfortunately, although kids tend to take on their parents’ worries, it can be hard for parents to control anxiety — even in normal times. But these are not normal times: Politicians, the media and ordinary citizens on both sides are hurling heated rhetoric across the aisle, all of which is fueling anxiety.
When upset enough, people can start to think and behave in less rational, more primitive ways. Mental health professionals call this “regression“: when people go from adult, rational behavior to a more emotionally…