In favorable conditions, a child learns how to manage feelings of anxiety by being exposed to just the right amount of distress. The optimal amount of anxiety to be experienced by a child will depend on his or her age as well as temperament. No mathematical formula is available to guide parents in their quest to determine what kind and amount of anxiety will prove optimal for a specific child, but the child will offer data by way of his or her responses to given situations.
Newborns, for example, cry when they are hungry. If their cries get a quick response, then newborns typically eat heartily and soon peacefully fall asleep. A response time of ninety seconds or less results in a baby calming down in five seconds, for example. If the response to a baby’s hungry cry is delayed too long, the baby will not be soothed as quickly when food is finally offered. A response time of three minutes results in fifty seconds needed to soothe the baby. The data shows that doubling the response time leads to a tenfold increase in the time it takes to soothe a newborn. The information provided by the newborns’ responses implies what optimal anxiety means in this situation: a hungry newborn does not yet have the internal resources to handle waiting while hungry.
Learning to cope with life’s ups and downs follows a similar pattern in toddlerhood. Toddlers tend to protest with gusto when they don’t like what is occurring. If they recover quickly after their distress, the experience was most likely manageable for them. Experiences that are manageable help toddlers learn about unpleasant feelings of anxiety and frustration and how to cope with and recover from them. They learn that life’s little glitches can be tolerated. This learning is more easily done when parents remain available and supportive during times of distress.
When children reach preschool age, they can more easily control their behavior. Preschoolers can talk about what they want and how they feel if they can’t have it, and preschool children have a better understanding of how to handle their emotions, even if they don’t always get their way.
Look at the data provided by your child when he or she is distressed. The information provided by his or her behavior will help you decide what amount of anxiety is going to help your child learn to survive and thrive through life’s ups and downs.