‘A fox could bite my bottom’: Childhood worries and anxieties may be influenced by the anxieties of their parents

I grew up in the 1970s. To me it seemed a pretty anxious era. The Cold War, unemployment, staggering blindly around the house during power-cuts. Yet today, research shows, we are more anxious than ever. Children in particular are feeling the impact.

A recent report found that children as young as 8 are worried about the world today and a third of 10 and 11-year-olds are concerned about the credit crunch. And the Government has just announced that schools are to receive an extra £4.5 million to teach students about terrorism and violent extremism.

Against this backdrop, psychologists at Sussex University have embarked on research into the role that parents may play in transmitting anxiety to their children. At the Sussex University psychology lab, Isaac Maltby, 9, approaches with trepidation two cardboard boxes labelled “quoll” and “cuscus”.

A researcher asks if he’d like to stroke the animals inside. Isaac boldly puts his hand into the hole in the quoll’s box. Approaching the cuscus he is more circumspect, inserting his hand slowly, pulling it out again quickly.

His mother, Candida Maltby, 40, looks even more nervous when she comes into the room. “OK,” she murmurs, inching her fingertips in. “Feels still asleep to me,” she adds, swiftly pulling back.

Over the previous hour, Isaac and Candida have taken part in tests aimed at investigating how Candida’s feelings about these unusual animals might affect how confident her son is about them. When he was first told about the cuscus, Isaac sounded curious, keen to stroke one. As his mother’s trepidation became clear, so he, too, became more cautious.

Though the research is still incomplete, it looks likely to show scientifically what many parents feel instinctively: that children not only take seriously what their parents say about potential dangers, but are equally alert to more subtle, non- verbal clues. As Dr Andy Field, of Sussex University, puts it: “Do anxious parents give visual cues to their children that are anxiety-provoking? And do they overlook signs of anxiety in their children?”

Other adults can also let children down, particularly when it comes to social anxiety. “You have teachers saying things such as: ‘this child doesn’t really engage’. If I hear that, I think: they want to engage, but they’re anxious,” Dr Field says.

**A child’s early environment can also be important, says Graham Music, child psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, London. “Recent research has shown that maternal anxiety can be transmitted in utero; stress hormones can be transmitted across the placenta. As they grow up, children are often emotional barometers of their environments.”

The job of the parent, he adds, is to interpret the world for their child. “But you need a balance between being in touch with your child’s anxiety, and also showing them that there is a world outside the anxiety.” Perhaps by distracting them at the right moment.

There are times, though, when a child can have extremely high levels of anxiety, but may not show it. Music says: “Attachment experiments show that one-year-olds who don’t cry when their mothers leave them alone in a room, and who seem not to care, often have the same physiological signs of stress as the babies who cry out when left.” While some children might go into a “cut-off, almost dissociated state”, others “become very reactive to almost every stimulus, and these often become out-of-control children”.**

What’s the best advice for most of us, when we find ourselves confronted by a fearful child? Sam Cartwright-Hatton, of Manchester University, says that the first thing to do is to check your general parenting environment. “For a sensitive child, things need to be calm, clear, warm and consistent. Avoid shouting and smacking.”

**Show confidence to your children, even if you don’t feel it. “If you’re scared of dogs, try not to leap 6ft in the air. Keep calm.” And monitor what you tell children – whether about the environment, the economy or creepy-crawlies.

“Try not to tell your child that things are scary or dangerous unless they really are.” If your own fear really is overwhelming, call on others for support. “If you can’t be brave around spiders, get your sister or husband to play with spiders with your child, and so model that spiders are OK.”

If all else fails, contact your GP and ask for professional help. “Beware the advice that children just grow out of anxieties,” she says. “They usually don’t.”


0-2 YEARS Unusual situations, water, heights, not being around care-givers, fears about survival.

3-5 YEARS Ghosts, goblins, nightmares, monsters under the bed, increasing awareness of threat in the immediate environment.

5-8 YEARS Animals, growing awareness of the real threat in the immediate environment. Children of this age are aware that, while very mobile, they are still small and vulnerable.

9-11 YEARS Personal injury, fears of injections, breaking arms and legs.

11-13 YEARS Social anxieties, social phobias, fears about one’s place in the hierarchy, fears of being cast out if you don’t have the “right” clothes or trainers.

What children really fear

Elsie, 3 “I get scared when someone says they don’t want to be my friend and they don’t want to play with me any more.”

Charlie, 5 “In the daytime foxes have gone to bed but when they come out at night, a fox could bite my bottom.”

Millie, 5 “I am a bit scared of carrots. I used to be scared of pear but now I know it is nice.”

Maddie, 6 “I always tuck the duvet under my legs when I go to sleep because I don’t want snakes to eat my feet. When I was little the snakes got in and ate my feet.”

Jess, 6 “In the night, when everyone’s asleep, I can hear footsteps going up the stairs and I feel scared. I think there’s kind of a monster creeping up the stairs.”

Josh, 8 “It’s scary to think of the pollution destroying all the rainforest so the animals haven’t got anything to eat and then the plants will die and the human race will die.”

Nye, 9 “I don’t like burglars. When there’s a loud noise upstairs I always think that there’s a burglar breaking in.”

Ira, 10 “I’m scared of hookworms and tapeworms. I hate the thought of having one in my body because they worm their way into you and live inside you.”

Tula, 11 “I worry about all the people in Africa dying and I feel I should be doing something about it. I also worry about my house setting on fire.”

Lemar, 12 “I want to drive a car when I’m older, so I worry about petrol prices and more people driving electric cars which are really dangerous and will cause road deaths because people won’t hear them.”

Amy, 13 “It scares me thinking that one day I might get so old that I lose my sense of humour and no one wants to be friends with me because I’m no fun.”

Source: Times Online, UK