While children don’t have bills to pay, unreasonable work colleagues to deal with, or traffic to contend with, they still experience their fair share of daily struggles and can get stressed or worried. An anxiety disorder in children can be tough to spot. Many children experience anxiety, but how can you tell whether your child is suffering from an anxiety disorder? In this article, you’ll learn about the different types of anxiety disorders that affect children, the signs to look out for, and how you can help your child.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is simply a natural human reaction to stressful situations. When someone is anxious, he or she worries about what might happen and frets about things going “wrong” or “bad” things happening. We all experience anxiety from time to time—when we’re faced with significant change, giving a presentation at work, exams, a big life event—but when this anxiety gets overwhelming or happens too often, affecting quality of life, it becomes a problem.
Anxiety Disorder in Children
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions. Diagnosing anxiety disorder in children is paramount to getting the proper treatment. While there are different anxiety disorders, they all share a common trait: an overwhelming anxiety that is out of proportion with the situation or event and negatively impacts your child’s life, wellbeing and happiness. The other thing they have in common is that they are all treatable. Let’s take a closer look.
Children with panic disorder experience unexpected and repeated anxiety or panic attacks followed by extreme worry and fear about having future panic attacks.
The symptoms of a panic attack include…
- Racing heart
- Chills or hot flashes
- Feeling outside the body
- Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
- Nausea or stomach troubles
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of dying
While panic attacks are not uncommon, they become a serious problem when a child has anxiety about having panic attacks. With panic disorder, the attacks happen unpredictably and for no apparent reason. Panic attacks can also occur in other anxiety disorders. For example, if a child has a phobia about spiders, he or she may have a panic attack when confronted with one.
General anxiety disorder (GAD)
Children with GAD worry excessively and constantly about all manner of things—parents divorcing or falling ill, global warming, natural disasters, being punctual, getting sick, performing at school, etc. These children may be nicknamed “worry warts” as they fret uncontrollably over daily events. Children with GAD are often excessively focused on the area of worry, spending hours studying current affairs or reading up on disease, avoiding recreational activities and becoming increasingly withdrawn.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
This anxiety disorder is characterized by compulsive, repetitive physical or mental behaviors, which the child uses to soothe obsessive thoughts. These compulsive behaviors are often done ritualistically and in very specific ways—for example, tapping the table ten times before eating. These compulsions may be obvious, like arranging things in very specific ways, or not; some children perform their rituals in their heads, like praying or counting backwards in certain situations. A child with OCD fears that something bad will happen unless these rituals are performed: “I must tidy the shoes in a certain way, or Dad will have an accident.”
Children experiencing phobias feel irrational, uncontrollable and intense fear of an object or situation. The most common causes are insects, dentists, spiders, dogs, swimming, and elevators. It is natural for young children to be afraid of things, but phobias are not the same as childhood fears. Instead of growing out of these fears, a child with a phobia will become more afraid as he or she grows up. A young child will usually react by crying, screaming, wanting to be picked up, or clinging. An older child may express fears in negative predictions like “It will hurt me” or “I’ll die.”
According to Anxiety BC, 2 percent of adolescents experience agoraphobia, a fear of being somewhere they perceive to be unsafe or where they cannot get help, for example public transport, elevators or movie theatres. The child may refuse to go to certain places or display behaviors like choosing a seat near an exit or insisting they be in contact with a “safety person” by phone.
Social anxiety disorder
Children with this condition have an intense fear of social or performance situations. The fear usually centers on doing something embarrassing, saying something stupid, and being judged negatively by others. Some children have a fear of speaking in public while others fear a variety of social situations. They avoid or try to avoid parties, family occasions, and athletic activities and may find it difficult to talk to adults, participate in class, and eat in front of others.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
This disorder can develop after a child has witnessed, been involved in, or been told about a distressing or traumatic event. Natural disasters, a violent community, physical abuse, and car accidents are common causes. A child with PSTD will experience upsetting and vivid memories, flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks and may be fidgety and unwilling to talk about or be reminded of the event.
Signs to Look Out For
Do any of the descriptions strike a chord with you? Have you noticed your child behaving in these ways? Most children will experience some anxiety at one time or another, but not all will develop an anxiety disorder. Those who do appear overly anxious and may display some of the following behaviors:
- Excessive worry most days and for prolonged periods
- Sleep problems or sleepiness during the day
- Restlessness or fatigue
- Trouble concentrating
- Unwillingness to discuss fears or anxieties
What Causes Anxiety Disorder in Children?
Experts don’t know exactly what causes these conditions to develop. Genetics, stressful life circumstances and brain biochemistry all play a part. The good news is that, whatever the cause, there are coping strategies that can help your child—and help you to support your child in overcoming his or her anxiety disorder.
Treating Anxiety Disorder in Children
If you are concerned that your child has an anxiety disorder, speak to your family doctor or a mental health professional. A specialized therapist will review the symptoms, diagnose the type of anxiety disorder, and design a plan to help your child overcome the condition.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most common therapy used to treat childhood anxiety disorders. The child learns coping skills such as relaxation techniques and breathing exercises as well as different ways of thinking and acting when confronted with a stressful situation.
How You Can Help
You can help your child by speaking openly about the symptoms and how they affect daily life. Acknowledging the situation in an open and supportive way is key to helping someone with anxiety. As frustrating as the behaviors can be, try to remain calm, supporting and non-judgmental so that your child feels safe and loved. It can sometimes help to speak to your child about some of the stresses in your own life and how you overcame them. Lead by example; if your child sees you remaining peaceful and centered in the face of difficult situations, he or she will find it easier to be calm.
With love, kindness, support and the right care, you can help your child to overcome the anxiety disorder and grow up to be a well-balanced, happy adult ready for whatever life has to offer.
Does your child have anxiety disorder? Have you noticed your child displaying any of the behaviors described in this article? What strategies have you found useful to help your child? We’d love to hear your experiences or any tips for fellow parents experiencing a similar situation, so please drop us a line in the comments section.