One of the most debilitating aspects of anxiety is its power to cause people to feel different, isolated, and cut off from the world. This feeling of alienation can come in many forms and tends to feed on itself. Often, feelings of being different and separate from others can lead to increased anxiety and withdrawal. Left unaddressed, these are overpowering feelings that can lead to depression in a child with anxiety.
Alone in the Family
Children who are anxious may shy away from contact with family as well. Although it is common for teens or children who are more solitary or introverted to spend time alone in their rooms, the anxious child will avoid family contact more often than not. Your child may try to opt out of family outings, especially when extended family is included. He may appear to be indifferent, may “hang back,” or may be slow to warm when extended family or company is present.
Anxious children may opt for solitary activity, even when the opportunity for more interesting group interaction is available. It is important to note that some children are naturally more introverted than others. If your child has anxiety, he will have issues in several of the areas highlighted in this chapter.
How can you learn more about what is typical for your child at a given age or stage?
A trip to your local library or bookstore can uncover excellent resources for determining whether your child differs from developmental norms. Books in the child development and parenting sections can be enlightening and reassuring. Early Childhood Family Education programs, available in many communities, are also great resources for parents.
Alone at School
Because they are often highly sensitive and may overreact to challenges or disappointments, anxious children can feel isolated at school. They have difficulty making and keeping friends, and may come home from school teary and overwhelmed by social demands they feel they cannot meet. Your child may make statements such as “no one likes me” or “everybody's mean to me.”
Because she may be afraid to try new things, like the monkey bars or the newest dance step, she may actually end up ostracized by her peer group, magnifying her sense of aloneness. Because peer relationships are so important, they will be addressed more fully in the section entitled “Trouble with Friends.”
A child with anxiety issues often feels that he is not like other children. The cycle of negative thinking that so often occurs in a child with anxiety may cause him to magnify his fears and shortcomings. Because his experiences are perceived as more intense or overwhelming than those of his peers, he is left with a sense of “otherness” that may prevent him from identifying with and learning from his peers. Behavioral issues such as tearfulness or frequent meltdowns can alienate the child with anxiety further from his peers. It is not uncommon for children to avoid or reject kids who seem immature or have low self-esteem.
They Can Do It, Why Can't I?
Encourage your child to master small skill sets that will enable her to meet larger demands. For example, if she is resistant to a sleepover, start “smaller” by arranging daytime get-togethers. Confidence builds on itself, and the goal in addressing anxiety is to encourage your child to stretch, without increasing anxiety. The successes your child experiences will build on themselves, creating a mindset of capability.
The child with anxiety has a tendency to see the world through the lens of “not good enough.” As a result, your child may give the achievements of others more importance than is due, and may downplay his own accomplishments. Because he may be afraid of failure, he may not attempt to master new skills and may see himself as unable to measure up to the expectations of his peer group.
He may give up entirely on learning a new skill, like the child who becomes afraid of trying to ride a bike and who will not ride at all because his friends have already mastered the skill. A child with anxiety may believe that others accomplish things easily and then give up on a task, believing he is a failure because the task wasn't easy. If you believe this is true for your child, try modeling persistence in the face of trouble or ask other children to share their struggles about how difficult something was.