Childhood itself is quite an anxious process. Kids are tasked with learning new skills, meeting new challenges, overcoming fears, and navigating a world that doesn’t always make sense. But sometimes these fears or stressors prove too much to handle, and the normal comforts that adults can provide don’t quite seem to be enough. In these cases, a child may have a diagnosable anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are the most commonly experienced mental illnesses in the United States, and kids are no exception.1 Roughly one in eight children may have an anxiety disorder, but a majority of children who would qualify for a diagnosis are not getting the treatment they need.2 Not treating anxiety leaves a child at risk of decreasing performance in school, poor social skills, and harmful behaviors like substance abuse.
Types of Childhood Anxiety Disorders
There are many types of anxiety disorders, but here are the disorders most common anxiety disorders experienced by children.3
Generalized Anxiety Disorder – If your child experiences excessive anxiety or worry that results in fatigue, irritability, muscle tension, difficulty concentrating, or sleep disturbances, then they may receive a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder. This worry may be about school performance, friendships, family relationships, or other activities or concerns.
Separation Anxiety Disorder – Some separation anxiety is developmentally appropriate, especially for children between 1-3 years old. But for older children, if they have excessive fear or anxiety about being separated from caregivers, then they may qualify for a diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder. Children with the disorder may frequently worry about parents dying or becoming separated from them. They may refuse to go out or go to school, have nightmares about separation, or experience physical symptoms like headaches or nausea due to this anxiety.
Selective Mutism – Children with selective mutism may refuse to speak in certain social situations, even though they are very talkative at home or wherever they feel comfortable. They may refuse to speak at school and withdraw from others or avoid eye contact. Children around the age of 5 are most commonly diagnosed with this disorder.
Specific Phobia – Some children may exhibit fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation. If this fear lasts a long time and is out of proportion to the actual danger posed, this fear may be classified as a phobia. Children will cry, freeze up, or cling to an adult when their fear is present. Children can have phobias that include (but are not limited to) animals, storms, needles, loud sounds, and enclosed spaces.
Panic Disorder – Children who experience recurring panic attacks and worry about having more may have panic disorder. A child having a panic attack may complain of symptoms that can include shortness of breath, chest pain, sensation of choking, nausea, dizziness, chill or heat sensations, fear of “going crazy,” and fear of dying.
Social Anxiety Disorder – If your child has an intense fear of having to participate in class or interaction with their peers, then they may have social anxiety disorder. Children may exhibit this fear through throwing tantrums, crying, clinging to adults, freezing up, or refusing to speak. They may also attempt to avoid social situations that provoke this fear.
Helping Kids with Anxiety
Never hesitate to consult with professionals about your child’s anxiety, as they can guide you towards the right resources and conduct a proper assessment. Children with anxiety disorders are typically treated with talk therapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help a child test out what thoughts they have are realistic or unrealistic. Play therapy may work best for young children to work through anxieties. For some kids, medication may be prescribed in the short-term or the long-term, depending on the nature and severity of symptoms. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed medication to treat anxiety disorders among children.4
Parents often can feel helpless when they see their child experiencing intense fear or worry. There may be a temptation to simply remove the child from all situations that prompt this anxiety or to over accommodate for their child’s fear. These actions only make a child more sensitive to these environments. Parents can validate the child’s feelings but also model calmness and confidence that their child is going to be okay and can master scary situations like school or meeting new people. Also, because children are most anxious leading up to a challenging situation, it’s important for parents not to ask too many questions about the anxiety. Remember, as a parent, it’s not your goal to eliminate all anxiety from your child’s life. Your job is to help your child learn to manage anxiety effectively so that they can deal with life’s challenges long into adulthood.
Anxiety is inevitable in life, but no child should have to feel stuck with it. What steps can you take today to help your child learn to manage anxiety successfully?