Many of the environmental factors that contribute to anxiety are discussed in detail later in the book, but here is a general understanding. The environment is all events, people, circumstances, desires, needs, and situations that have a point of origin outside of your child. Any situation that disrupts your child's sense of structure and order in their world creates a change internally.
It is common when children start school or transition to a new grade or daycare for them to become emotional, scared, or clingy for a brief period. Usually, parents will find a few weeks are normal for the transition, and are able to hang in there. It is when the reaction becomes protracted and your child cannot move past her feelings about the incident that intervention will be necessary.
Some common examples of stressful life events (which are external stressors) are:
Seeing violence at home, school, or on TV
Anxious, overprotective, or critical parenting style
Difficulty with friendships
Death of a family member, friend, or family pet
Uncertainty of outcome, along with transitions and ambiguous situations, often create the most stress. In addition, if a child grows up in an environment that is actually scary or dangerous, such as when there is violence in the family or the community, as discussed earlier, the child may learn to be fearful or expect the worst.
When a situation lacks a clear outcome, your child might feel a lack of control and significant stress. Uncertain as to what type of coping response will be needed to deal with a particular situation, your child might be convinced he does not have what it takes to get through it, especially when he remembers difficulties he had in the past. A study of adolescents anxious about the future, a stressor marked by uncertainty, found they expressed their anxiety by trying to alter their mood. Often they resorted to drug-taking and impulsive or dangerous behavior to help them cope.
Children can learn how to manage environmental stressors through watching parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and peers at school. If they observe people who respond to stressful situations with uncertainty, worry, nervousness, extreme caution, and overemphasis on danger, this can influence how they themselves will react, and create a pessimistic worldview.
First, it is important to note that most parents do not cause their children to be anxious, rather they unwittingly help to perpetuate it. We say most parents because this statement does not hold true if there is intentional violence or abuse in the home. Sometimes in your efforts to do the best you can with what you have been taught or know, you are unaware that your efforts might be hindering your children. For example, if your seven-year-old child is afraid to make new friends, you might “help” him by making the phone call to set up a play date, instead of assuring him he can get through it on his own.
Parents can also affect how a child chooses to cope though their anxiety by watching the choices they make. For example, if you come home from work stressed, does your child see you reach for a glass of wine or a beer to relax, or do you yell at others and then say, “Sorry, I had a stressful day”?
According to a National Television study on violence, a child will have viewed 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of television violence by the time he is 11 years old. It is important to use parental controls and limit what is available for viewing to minimize the impact of trauma on your child and decrease sources of anxiety.
Research shows that inconsistency, harsh and rigid attitudes, ambiguity, and family conflict appear to be among the primary predictors of the development of anxiety. Also identified as associated with a child's anxiety is a lack of clear family rules, strong parental concern for a family's reputation, a poor relationship with the father, and an inability for the child to bond in infancy.
Early traumatic experience can block the normal growth and development of coping skills, and affect your child's emotional and social growth. At the time of the event, intense feelings of fear and helplessness can overcome your child, causing him to feel he cannot think clearly or function well. If your child has experienced a life event that is out of the realm of normal human experience and continues over time, even with your care, concern, and discussions with him, he may be on his way to an anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Your child's reaction to a trauma is affected by her age, what life has felt like so far, temperament and personality, and when the trauma happened. This can result in feelings of loss of control and stability, worry about personal safety, and grief reactions. When the trauma has been long-lasting or a sense of hopelessness develops, as in the case of abuse or bullying, you might see school refusal, or even suicidal thinking.
When foods are full of sugar or caffeine, contain food additives, or if your child is lacking vitamins and minerals, anxiety, feelings of panic, an inability to sleep, night frights, and/or depression can develop. These foods can influence your child's thought process by altering her ability to concentrate or learn new material; they can also lower her level of awareness, weaken the growth process of her brain, increase how sick she becomes when ill, and unbelievably, even increase the duration and intensity of a cold.
A number of conditions can occur when your child's body is low in potassium, including diarrhea, vomiting, and sweating, which are also symptoms of anxiety. To keep potassium levels balanced, be sure to give your child bananas, meats, fruits, fish, beans, and vegetables.
Because anxiety affects blood sugar levels, it can cause sensitivities and stomach problems such as pain, a bloated or distended stomach, discomfort, indigestion, and symptoms of hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia. When your child overeats, especially sweets and desserts, it can affect her nervous system. This can trigger moodiness, anxiousness, sleepiness, or depression. It is important to note that some people can control their anxiety disorder almost completely though a reduction of sugary or caffeinated foods and drinks.
Sleep is a basic human need important at any age, as fundamental to feeling healthy as good nutrition and exercising regularly are. A good night's sleep, as you probably know, can make a world of difference in your child's ability to handle himself. It can refuel his body's energy, give his active brain the rest it needs, and all around put him mentally in a better mood.
On the flip side, lack of sleep is known to disrupt the body's ability to replenish hormones that affect both physical and mental health. For children with anxiety, lack of sleep is linked to learning problems, slower emotional and physical growth, bedwetting, and high blood pressure.