How much anxiety is too much?
October 7, 2013 7:59 AM   Subscribe

My 4 year old son has recently upped his anxiety related behaviors, and I'm not sure whether this is a common occurrence for this age, or whether we need to start changing things to help him out.

[Sorry this turned out longer than intended] My son has always been fairly introverted. He likes playing with kids and adults he knows, but can be quite shy around new ones. He has several friends at school, and they always run up to greet him when he arrives, but he never runs up to other kids to greet them regardless of how well he knows/likes them. This became a bit of a problem when he switched to a new school because he insisted for a couple weeks that none of the kids would play with him. Turns out, they would play with him if he asked, but he would never initiate. But he got some friends and that solved that. He's always been difficult with new classes (like swimming class at the Y, or tee ball, etc), until he gets to know the teachers/coaches, and will hang back and cry at joining (until he gets going, and then he's happy as a clam). All of this we thought we were handling ok, but recently it seems like it's been getting worse.

One major difference I noticed was that he know seems to have a big case of the "What if?"s, by which I mean, 75% of the time or more, anything we ask him to do (even if it is something simple like go find your shoes), has prompted a series of "What if..." questions (what if I can't find them? What if someone has stolen them? What if I fall down and [something random happens]?). The questions often go on until I tell him to stop asking and go do whatever he is supposed to be doing (or by the 3rd or 4th time I do that). Sometimes it seems like he's using it to stall because he just doesn't want to do it, but I'm starting to feel like that isn't the case a majority of the time. Moreover, sometimes he will go to ridiculous extremes to not do something (like insist on spending a long time in time out, or losing all of the activities for a day) to not do something he thinks he won't be able to do, even if it is something he does all the time. And his issues with sports classes, etc seems to have ramped up a bit too, such that he often refuses to go to the karate class that he's been going to for a while now and knows the teacher well. He also has started stating that some things he's done a lot (like jumping off some small rock walls around the neighborhood) are now too scary to do. And finally, he seems more defeatist and likely to throw a fit or give up if he has difficulty with something or if we correct him on doing something (even things he does all the time).

What my issue is is that a lot of these sorts of behaviors are fairly routine for his age group, I know, but I can't get a sense of whether he is more anxious that is normally expected and whether the increase in concerns over the future (ie. the What ifs) are normal/expected for this age, or if it bares further watching. He still seems to be a fairly happy kid, but I don't know.

So for the tldr: My kid's anxiety seems to be increasing, is this common at 4 years old? And if so/not, what can I do to help him out?
posted by katers890 to Human Relations (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
At 4 your cognitive skills take a jump that let you imagine different scenarios for the first time instead of only being able to picture something you are directly experiencing or remembering something that happened before. That "what if" thinking lets you solve problems for the first time, but it also opens you up to being able to do some really intense worry for the first time too. It is absolutely normal for all kinds of fears to emerge as they're sorting this stuff out. The increase in emotional behaviors as they're learning to manage this stuff is also pretty typical. I've got a really extroverted 4-yer-old at home who was suddenly really scared of bugs and would wonder about "What if my friends laugh at me?"

It sounds like what your guy is experiencing is within the typical range of learning about anxiety and managing it, but he also may tend to just be a bit more cautious/anxious as part of his natural personality. As a parent, you can coach him in how to manage his anxiety as it comes up "(Oh, my goodness that does seem scary. Let's try it together and see what happens!" "Here let me help you ask him if you can play with him too." "Wow! We were worried and tried it anyway! I'm so proud of you for doing that!" "Here is your very own monster spray and night light to help keep your room safe!"). My rule of thumb about when to get worried about these kinds of things is when it's really getting in the way of your child's ability to do the things he really, really wants to do (e.g., he cries most days, or really loves school and can't go anymore, or seems depressed) or when it's interfering with the way your family is able to do the things you need/want to do (e.g., can't leave the house because there might be scary bugs our there!).
posted by goggie at 8:22 AM on October 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Another thing you can do is to work through the anxiety with him.

"Well, what IF your shoes were stolen, then what would you do?" Help him problem-solve it. "Could you wear your sandals?" "No! It's cold outside!" "Okay, what other options? How about your slippers?" Help him come up with options, then send him for his shoes.

As for Karate, you can ask him, "You seemed to really like karate and Sensei Jason, now you don't want to go. What changed?" You never know, he may just hate the way his underwear rides up now that he has to do kicks. Or he may just be tired of it. Kids don't always like what they used to like. If it's something like, "it's hard," I think it's worth it to force the issue a bit, "I understand that it's harder and that some of the other kids seem to have an easier time of it. That happened to me when I was a kid. What I discovered though was that while I might never be the best Karate person in the class, that it was fun to learn how to get better." I kind of wish my parents had insisted that I keep trying because I'd have learned that not getting it right, right-away is part of the process. For years I thought I was shit in sports because it didn't come naturally. I missed out on a lot of cool sports related things because of it.

But talk to him more, he may not always have the language to articulate his feelings, but he can practice verbalizing his worries and you can walk him through them, and this will help him calm his anxiety.

Kids, they're weird little buggers.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:34 AM on October 7, 2013 [9 favorites]

I had 3 different 4 year olds and all three were different. One was a worrier. Still is, but it does not prevent him from playing football, riding his bike cross country or a lot of other things outside his natural comfort zone. He just needs to process it and think it out. Plan for contingencies are his basic coping mechanism. Ruthless Bunny describes well what my son now does naturally on his own.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:38 AM on October 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Despite my son being awesome in so many ways (social, inquisitive, inventive, energetic), we had different concerns, but handled them in a way that may be appropriate for your situation.

I'd note that yes, 4 years old is an age where we definitely saw flickers of higher cognitive thought in our child and we saw him figure out how to process more complex social cues; however, we saw that in his case that it might require more work than just he and my wife and I could provide.

If it is bugging you, this is a good time to visit his pediatrician. Could there be stuff? Yes. Is there stuff? Mefi probably can't diagnose that but getting him into the pediatrician will start getting the wheels of progress headed in the right direction if there is an issue.

What you might be looking to have him go through is a needs assessment - something which the pediatrician can't do, but it is something your kid's doctor needs to help grease the wheels for. For my son, we started with a tongue tie (referred to specialist / surgeon), then went back for conversations on speech delays - where we were referred to the state (public school system - early intervention), and then other delays (back to the public school system - also early intervention), and are now at the 'we can discuss the potential of ADHD' (this will be a bit more involved, but what we had suspicions about at the start of things).

So my son went from being in preschool 3 days a week (private), to adding in speech through the public school early intervention program, to 5 days a week preschool (private) with speech, to 4 day a week intensive early intervention program (public, includes speech and occupational therapy). On top of that, we work with him *every* day with some instructions and guidance from his school. This is the plan to get him ready for kindergarten in 1 year.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:39 AM on October 7, 2013

He sounds exactly like Wemberly in a children's illustrated book called Wemberly Worried. Maybe if you read that book to him, it will give him some perspective on his own feelings and/or give you a good opportunity to discuss the topic with him. In the end of the book, Wemberly is happy playing with a friend.
posted by Dansaman at 8:41 AM on October 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, it's normal! However, kid anxiety comes with a little complication: You really don't want him to develop the habit of expecting you to deal with all his anxieties.

I'm not sure how to explain what I mean in a way that won't sound totally cruel and offensive, but let me give it a shot. Coinciding with new-kid-anxiety is often new-kid-need-to-control. You point out the stalling, above, and I think that's a good example. We dealt with "I'm having a nightmare, and even though I'm obviously not as afraid as I was when I woke up, I am still going to order you to hang around, look under my bed, and talk and talk and talk about it." It is easy to find examples of parents who have basically become extensions of the child's anxiety-fighting strategies. "I know you are afraid of the water, now let's spend half an hour talking about those fears instead of having any fun at all."

Whatever you choose to give time and attention to, is important, and kids watch that closely; maybe not consciously, but they do learn from it. So if expressing anxiety is followed by lots of comfort, attention, and getting problems solved by someone else, then a kid might see a virtue in developing anxious habits. By contrast, if expressing anxiety is followed by acceptance, an attitude of "Okay, but you've got to work that out yourself," followed by the boredom of not participating in activities, the kid then has to develop some skills, or risk not having any fun at all. This only works in a loving environment, obviously, where the kid does get lots of attention and gets to talk to you about things you want to encourage and show lots of positivity about.

Something else to ask yourself about is, does the kid have too many activities planned? Kids do need lots of unstructured time where grown-ups aren't setting all the rules and parameters, so they can play, and do their own psychological development around the play problems they run into. (And that includes pretend games that involve anxieties! The more he falls down, the more he'll realize it just doesn't matter--and that lesson is so much richer than any talk could be!)
posted by mittens at 9:16 AM on October 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

Seconding Wemberly Worried, good book.

Also Shel Silverstein:

Last night, while I lay thinking here,
some Whatifs crawled inside my ear
and pranced and partied all night long
and sang their same old Whatif song:
Whatif I'm dumb in school?
Whatif they've closed the swimming pool?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there's poison in my cup?
Whatif I start to cry?
Whatif I get sick and die?
Whatif I flunk that test?
Whatif green hair grows on my chest?
Whatif nobody likes me?
Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?
Whatif I don't grow taller?
Whatif my head starts getting smaller?
Whatif the fish won't bite?
Whatif the wind tears up my kite?
Whatif they start a war?
Whatif my parents get divorced?
Whatif the bus is late?
Whatif my teeth don't grow in straight?
Whatif I tear my pants?
Whatif I never learn to dance?
Everything seems well, and then
the nighttime Whatifs strike again!
posted by headnsouth at 9:18 AM on October 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Anecdotal, I know, but: 4ish was totally the age my mom had to TAKE ME TO THE DOCTOR so that he could help explain to me that growing up was normal and that I shouldn't be scared of it. I had developed this terrible anxiety around growing up and getting bigger, triggered (as best my parents could understand) by an offhand comment my dad made that someday I'd be too big for my mom to carry me. My parents' own assurances that it was all okay really didn't help, so they resorted to actually bringing me into the pediatrician who went through a really basic explanation of why we grow up, and all the cool things I would get to do as I got older - I actually remember that visit pretty well and the calm reassurance and understanding I got from someone who was a non-parental authority figure really did help me feel better, although I recall it still being an occasional source of mild anxiety for a time afterwards.

I'm not a parent myself so I don't really have suggestions on how to help your kid out, but I wanted to share my own experience of having had pretty severe anxiety at that age, and it not being an indicator of anything horrible in the future.
posted by augustimagination at 10:26 AM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

As someone who's taught a lot of little kids sports I'd say this is pretty normal, especially for boys who imho are significantly more fearful than girls. Also more suicidally reckless so it may be a chicken and egg thing going on where he's scared himself for the first time doing something physical and is over reacting to that. If so expect the cycle to continue for approx 20 more years!

I will say that you should check in with him that he's not in pain. Bigger kids seem to ger more random growing pains and they never articulate that they dont want to run today because their knee hurts or ski because their boots got too small they just scream nooooooo and sob.
posted by fshgrl at 10:32 AM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks all for the reassurance! We try to talk through the What ifs when we have time, but he will keep going and going and going with them, so I can't take all the time to go through it most times because I have to deal with his brother too, and get them where they need to go, etc. But I will try to do it more as well, as well as lead him to do it himself too. We try not to over schedule him. Usually he just has school and then swimming and karate (both of which are Sat. morning and leave all of Sat. afternoon and Sunday free of scheduled things), and if we add a new sport/activity to try, we try to drop one of those for a bit. He actually just came off a requested break from karate, and seemed to be enthused about going again (he had a bit of a rough go of switching from the little kid class to the bigger kid class, but decided he wanted to go back). What's funny is that he isn't really a fearful kid in the more traditional sense. He's not really scared of much (though he is very sensitive about "scary" things in movies), it's more anxiety that fears most of the time. We will check out the book too, he does love reading : ).
posted by katers890 at 11:23 AM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older How is the US Civil War taught in schools not in...   |   How do Adult Human Beings get shit done after work... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.