Recognizing Anxiety in Children

It is not uncommon for young children to express feelings of nervousness and worry in their everyday lives. However, some children face persistent and excessive feelings of worry and fear, making their day-to-day tasks difficult to get through. Parents may not be familiar with the signs of childhood anxiety or how to approach getting the appropriate help for their children suffering with an anxiety disorder. Understanding childhood anxiety and treatment options can best help teach your children how to regulate their anxiety and lead a healthier and happier life.

The most common anxiety disorder is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). GAD is defined by obsessive and persistent worry over various things in one’s life that has been prominent for at least six months and makes life dysfunctional. Childhood anxiety can affect children’s performance in school and social events, limiting their interactions and ability to calmly complete tasks.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that around 32% of children between the ages of 13-18 have an anxiety disorder. Although adults may not notice the signs of anxiety and wave children’s symptoms as nothing more than just nerves, anxiety disorders can severely impede one's ability to function in society.

There are usually a multitude of factors that can cause a child to develop an anxiety disorder. Some prominent factors include genetics, brain chemistry, life situations, and learned behaviors. Children with family members who have an anxiety disorder are more likely to inherit the genes that make them prone to develop anxiety. Chemical imbalances in the brain can also cause anxiety as well as certain life situations (death of a loved one, history of abuse, major illness, violence, etc.). Similarly, the way a child is raised can influence their behaviors. This is especially true when children grow up in an environment where fear and anxiety are prevalent. Children can be taught over time to respond with fear and anxiety when their home lives reinforce these feelings.

Here are some symptoms of childhood anxiety to be on the lookout for:

Separation anxiety

  • Excessive clinging or crying when a parent leaves

Phobias

  • Extreme/ out of proportion fear about a certain situation or thing
  • Intense fear causes excessive distress every time

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

  • Pervasive worry about future events
  • Difficulty controlling their worry or fears over bad things happening
  • Restless, shaky, short of breath
  • Seemingly on edge/ irritable
  • Difficulty concentrating, clammy hands, dry mouth, racing heart

Panic Disorder

  • Episodes of trembling, a racing heart, shortness of breath, derealization, sweating

Parents should be on the lookout for symptoms of childhood anxiety. Children who deal with anxiety disorders have difficulty functioning in their everyday lives and need appropriate help managing and controlling their anxiety. About 8% of children who have an anxiety disorder stated that their disorder caused severe impairment. Children who are at risk for developing anxiety disorders are those who dealt with significant loss, had negative home environments, and dealt with academic difficulty. Also, anxiety disorders are seen to be more prevalent in adolescent girls (38%) than in adolescent boys (26%).

If you think your child may have an anxiety disorder it is best to reach out to a mental health professional and ask for a psychological evaluation. Symptoms of anxiety can also be caused by other factors such as traumatic events or other mental disorders. Be sure to find a psychologist who will conduct a careful and thorough evaluation to ensure an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan. Treatments for childhood anxiety include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), behavior therapy, holistic approaches, and medication. CBT is a talk therapy where children learn to analyze their emotions and thought processes and discuss how both of these affect their mental health. Through CBT, parents can learn how to best approach their child’s anxiety, how to help their children face their fears, and also teach children healthy coping mechanisms. Behavioral therapy can include family therapy, child therapy, or even combine both. Holistic approaches can include nutritional regulation, increasing physical activity, establishing routines, adjusting sleep schedules, and focusing on social support. Common medications for childhood anxiety include antidepressants and benzodiazepines. When medication and therapy are paired together for children with severe childhood anxiety, the combination of the two can lead to a better outcome and best help children manage their disorder.

The teen show Teen Wolf depicts a character named Stilinski (Stiles) who suffers from anxiety. Throughout the show, Stiles suffers from panic attacks resulting from PTSD and General Anxiety Disorder. The audience watches Stiles begin to develop insomnia, night terrors, and his panic attacks grow in frequency and multitude. When experiencing a panic attack, Stiles feels unable to breathe and the camera angles enhance these feelings of severe anxiety by turning to the side and spinning. Teen Wolf uses shows the audience how anxiety disorders can negatively impact teens’ lives. Stiles is able to confront his anxiety disorder and extend his social support to get appropriate help to manage his anxiety.

If you believe your child has an anxiety disorder, help is always available. Reach out to lisa@kkjpsych.com for more information and know that you are not alone.

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