Developmental Anxiety

When we talk about developmental anxiety we are talking about origins, and how those origins grow over time.

While not always the case, the most common cause of developmental anxiety is childhood distress at home. Lack of stability, perceptions or actual experiences of threat, fear for one’s safety or well-being are all laden with the potential of causing the onset of an ongoing relationship with anxiety in a child’s life.

Growing up around alcohol and drug abuse as well as verbal, physical, or sexual violence are all precursors.

I’ve heard more than one anxious adult client speak of having to hide or secretly sneak from the house to protect him or herself from a parent or parents in the throes of an alcohol or drug-fueled rage. Yep, that’ll do it!


Growing up like this creates a developing sense that one’s very existence is in jeopardy. This causes the child to form some very problematic conclusions about life (most of which are unconscious). It threatens such beliefs as “home is a safe place” and “people who claim to love you can be trusted,” just to name two.

Most readers will have heard of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov and his famous pooches. If you need a refresher – it was Pavlov who conditioned his laboratory dogs to salivate at the sound of a ringing bell. But here’s a part of that full story that you might not have known.


[su_custom_gallery source=”media: 2123″ width=”500″ height=”312″]


Instead of the bell, one of Pavlov’s dogs had been conditioned to salivate when he saw a circle projected onto a screen.

Once that was accomplished, another factor was added to the experiment. The addition added the element of an ellipse. When the circle was shown, food was given to the dog. When the picture was that of the ellipse, no food.

Over time in the experiment, the ellipse was gradually changed until it was almost identical to the circle.


[su_pullquote]This is where the story gets interesting.[/su_pullquote]


When the ellipse was so close in shape to the circle that the dog could no longer distinguish between the two, the dog began to show drastic behavioral changes. It has been described like this:

The dog, formerly very calm and quiet, began to bark, squeal, and become aggressive toward the attendants. It tore at the apparatus and showed signs of fear of the room.


In other words, when the dog was no longer clear as to what was going on, it became fearful and anxiety filled. It moved into fight or flight.

And so, alas, with children. When the environment is unstable, when messages are unclear, when signals are mixed, when behaviors are contradictory… the child begins to experience a general sense of anxiety. Not uncommonly, this anxiety will become the child’s constant companion as he or she journeys on through life. Characteristically, especially if there is no intervention at some point in the person’s journey, the anxiety will stay with them to the grave.

We will build on this next week and show how developmental anxiety tends to broaden out as the individual grows up.


Dr Michael Ruth, Growth Resources, Personal Growth