The Anxious 5 Year Old

13 May

 

Children in preschool and kindergarten are big believers in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. These beliefs are part of what gives this age group its charm and delight. But it requires some modifications in approach when it comes to helping them with anxiety–whether it is separating for school, a scary book, going to sleep or a doctor’s visit. Most books on helping anxious children are focused on elementary school-age children and universally advocate personifying anxiety with names such as the Worry Monster or a suitable name of the child’s invention. However, with kindergarten or preschool children, personifying the problem may backfire because they don’t have the necessary ability to separate themselves from their thoughts and realize that the “Worry Monster” is a convenient therapeutic strategy rather than a new thing to fret about. Children of this age are very concrete in the way they think and can’t categorize their thoughts at this point in their development.

The different ways in which young children view the world can be illustrated by a famous experiment done by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. He presented children with two identical glasses of water and asked if them if the glasses contained the same amount of water or were different. If they agreed that the glasses were the same, then one glass was poured into a thinner but taller glass and the question was repeated. Very often at this age, the child will say that the glasses are different, and the taller one has more water. This is what consistently happens when I do this with the five-year-olds in my practice. They are not able to understand that a change in height is compensated by a change in width. This difficulty in integrating information has relevance for helping your anxious child.

For starters, it suggests focusing more on the immediacy of their experience, their big feelings, with a more descriptive approach. My daughter, Lesley Younis, a kindergarten teacher, gave me the following suggestions. “Rather than talk about anxiety, I would talk about those emergency feelings a child gets in his body. And I would make a simple distinction about anxious feelings between scared-scared and fun-scared. So reading a story about Hansel and Gretel might be fun-scared for most kindergarten children, but for several it would be scared-scared”. The vocabulary to talk about emotions is concrete and tied to the immediacy of their experience.

In this age group, pretend play is the primary way children make sense of their feelings. In pretend play in which, for instance, stuffed animals and toys can become a reflection or a stand- in for the child there are the possibilities for many playful interventions. A stuffed animal might be worried about going to school and then the child can help the bear go to school. For the child who won’t put on a coat to leave the house, a parent can have the coat talk to the child and explain how it wants to go on walks with her. The anxious feelings are more displaced onto another person or object rather than becoming a personified being. The displacement of feeling is more general and less specific than when older children begin talking about the worry monster, and is more useful for this younger age group.

copyright@edward h plimpton

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