Anxiety in Childhood
With today’s mounting stressors, it is no wonder that children today are feeling more anxious. It is estimated that approximately 8 to 10% of children (ages 13-18) are diagnosed with some type of anxiety disorder. To make matters worse, anxiety in children can often go undetected. While some children may discuss their worries and fears with someone, many children attempt to keep these fears hidden. It is therefore important for parents and caregivers to be able to discover the signs and symptoms that a child may be suffering from an anxiety disorder.
An example of child exhibiting signs of anxiety is described below. Allison, an eight-year-old child, is in the third grade. Her parents are concerned about recent changes in Allison’s behavior. Allison, who used to be outgoing and love school, is more withdrawn and “on edge.” She constantly seeks reassurance about what will happen the following day and appears to become upset and overwhelmed much more easily. Moreover, in the past several months, Allison has been complaining of headaches and stomachaches. She is also having difficulty falling asleep, appears constantly tired and is irritable with no identified triggers. Her teacher says that Allison is having difficulty paying attention in class and has a recent drop in her grades.
Types of anxiety disorders
There are several different types of anxiety that a child may have. The types of anxiety disorders are:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This type of anxiety includes extreme worry about many things (i.e. family members, money, friends, school work, teachers etc.). These worries occur for little or no reason and it is difficult for the child to control these worries. This type of anxiety also causes the individual to think that things will go wrong and may interfere with the person’s daily tasks and activities.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD is characterized by experiencing unwanted and disturbing thoughts, which are called obsessions and the feeling of being forced to engage in behaviors (such as counting, hand washing, insistence on symmetry) to alleviate anxiety.
Panic Disorder. This type of anxiety is characterized by suffering from unexpected panic attacks. These panic attacks appear to have a sudden and unexpected onset. Symptoms of panic attacks include sweating, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea and trembling. Individuals with Panic Disorder often feel as if they are losing control or “going crazy” as a result of their panic attacks.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Individuals with PTSD experience intense fear and anxiety after either experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Some individuals may experience being “emotionally numb” or irritable. Often, the individual will avoid a place, person or situation that they feel are related to the traumatic event.
Social Phobia (or Social Anxiety Disorder). This disorder is characterized by intense fear of social and/or performance situations. Examples of these situations include conversing with others, being called on in school and giving a presentation to a group of people.
Separation Anxiety Disorder. Individuals with Separation Anxiety experience extreme and excessive worry when away from home or caregivers. Furthermore, children with Separation Anxiety Disorder experience unprovoked worry that something bad will happen to their parents or caregiver when they are away from them.
Specific Phobias. Children with Specific Phobias experience extreme fear of specific items, animals or situations. Common phobias include fear of heights, medical procedures, darkness, storms and animals (i.e. dogs, snakes).
Normal Worry vs. Anxiety Disorder
Most children experience worry and fears. While childhood fears and worries are a typical part of development, some children experience excessive worries that extremely difficulty for them to control. Parents should consider the possibility that their child’s worrying maybe symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder when the child’s worries become very intense and appear to cause extreme distress. Other symptoms that commonly characterize Anxiety Disorders in children include:
- Excessive worry about things that appears insignificant to others
- Reassurance and consoling the child is ineffective in alleviating the child’s worry
- Physical complaints such as headache and stomachache
- Excessive worry about things before they occur
- Constant and unwavering worry
- Excessive fear of being embarrassed or making mistakes in from of others
- Low self-confidence
- Difficulty concentrating and/or paying attention
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes in behavior
- Changes in school performance
Tips for Parents
While dealing with these issues is difficult, parents and caregivers can take several steps to help their child manage their excessive worry and anxiety. The following are examples that may benefit both parents and children.
- Pay attention to situations/events that cause the child to feel anxious
- Prepare the child before situations are to occur that cause the child to be anxious
- Pay attention to and validate the child’s feelings
- Stay calm and patient when the child is feeling worried or anxious
- Do not punish the child for setback, mistakes or feeling anxious
- Praise the child for making small accomplishments
- Modify expectations during stressful periods and/or anxiety provoking situations for the child
If parents and caregivers further suspect their child is suffering from a possible Anxiety Disorder, seek professional help to further address your child’s symptoms and treatment options.
– Alycia Chapman, Psy.D. is a psychologist with the Monocacy Start Center, Inc.