Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions in the United States, affecting approximately 4.4 million children ages 3-17.
Anxiety, as a general emotion, can take many forms, from separation anxiety to fear of the doctor to fear of meeting new people. Feeling anxious at times, perhaps during unfamiliar situations, is a normal part of life and growing up. However, when anxiety prevents a child from fully participating in activities at home or school, it may be necessary to consider being evaluated for an anxiety disorder.
What are anxiety disorders?
Anxiety disorders are extreme fears about experiences or objects. They prevent children from fully being able to participate in activities and can lead to developmental delays or physical health issues, such as gastrointestinal issues or headaches. Children who experience anxiety disorders may also experience frustration or anger related to their fear. Some examples of anxiety disorders include:
- Separation anxiety disorder – An extreme fear of being away from parents or caregivers
- Phobias – An extreme fear of a specific thing, such as going to the doctor
- Generalized anxiety disorder – An extreme and overwhelming fear that something bad will happen in the future. This fear doesn’t have to be related to a specific situation or experience.
- Panic attacks – Anxiety that results in physical symptoms like sweating, high heart rate, and dizziness
What are symptoms of anxiety disorders?
It is sometimes difficult to identify an anxiety disorder in young children, as many children feel – for example – a fear when separated from their parents. Fear and worry are normal parts of life, and are experienced by all children at some point. However, symptoms of anxiety disorders are marked by a prolonged, persistent and sometimes disproportionate fear or worry that interferes with daily life and development. Symptoms of an anxiety disorder may include:
- Panic or overwhelming fear at confronting an issue
- Speaking repeatedly about a concern or worry, even after discussion or resolution
- Anger or irritability
- Physical symptoms like sweating, shaking, stomach aches, headaches, or biting nails
Treatment for Anxiety Disorders
It is important to know that anxiety is treatable. The first step is to recognize the symptoms, and to seek an evaluation from your child’s primary care provider, pediatric psychologist, licensed clinical social worker or other provider. Once a diagnosis has been established, your healthcare provider will work together with you and your child to determine the best treatment plan. This may include therapy, including a cognitive-behavioral therapy approach, which focuses on changing the thoughts and addressing the emotions that can lead to anxiety. This may be done with the child alone, or may also include the family. Cognitive-behavior therapy helps kids identify what it is that’s influencing their anxiety, and helps them develop ways to change that pattern of thinking.
Preventing Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety and worry are normal emotions that are part of everyday life. However, if you suspect that your child is showing symptoms of an anxiety disorder, it’s important to reach out to a healthcare provider for guidance and treatment. As a parent, you can help prevent anxiety disorders by having open, honest communication with your child about their fears and worries. By talking openly about these concerns, you can work together to reduce stressors or triggers, and strengthen your bond by establishing a trusting relationship based on understanding and listening.