It is normal for children to feel anxious and worried sometimes. However, anxiety becomes a problem when it starts to disrupt the child’s everyday activities such as going to school and sleeping.
What Causes Anxiety in Children?
There are several factors that play a role when it comes to anxiety in children.
Children will learn behavior from the people around them. For example, a baby may be unsettled because she picks up that the parents are worried and anxious. Children who spend a lot of time being around anxious people can pick up the anxious behavior.
Similar to many medical conditions, a tendency to anxiety can be inherited. Our brain has special chemicals – serotonin and dopamine – that transmit messages back and forth, telling us how and what to feel. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters. People may feel worried and anxious when these neurotransmitters are not working properly.
And genetics plays a big role in how these chemicals work and keep their balance within the body.
Stressful events or traumatic experiences in a child’s life can also cause children to become anxious. Stressful events include:
- Death in the family / or a close friend
- Being seriously ill or injured
- Often moving house or school
- Parents fighting, arguing or getting a divorce
- Experiencing abuse or neglect
- Being bullied in school
- School exams
In addition to these three main factors, anxiety often also occurs in children who are on the autism spectrum as well as children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Symptoms of Anxiety in Children
Anxiety in children can manifest in a number of ways.
Physical symptoms include:
- Increase heart rate
- Fast breathing
- Feeling dizzy
- Muscle aches
- Having trouble sleeping
- Unable to calm down and relax
- Being irritable or grumpy
- Having worries and constant fears
- Fear of trying new things
- Easily upset
Photo by Ba Phi from PexelsBehavioral Symptoms:
- Unable to focus on a task
- Clinging to parents
- Refusal to go to school and other activities
- Often has meltdowns and tantrums
These anxiety symptoms are the result of our body’s response to the perceived danger. Our body releases certain chemicals that will trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response.
These chemicals increase heart rate as well as affect our muscles and breathing so that we will be able to respond appropriately to danger. While these responses are to protect us from danger, those who are suffering from anxiety experience these even when there is no real danger present.
Anxiety in toddlers and preschoolers
Toddlers and preschoolers are not exempt from anxiety. Anxiety in young children include separation anxiety, stranger anxiety, phobias and shyness. While it is normal for young children to be anxious as they discover that things can go wrong, do pay attention to your child’s fears if it does not lessen over time and starts to interfere with daily activities and affects his behavior.
Anxiety in school age children and teens
As many as 1 in 3 teens experience an anxiety disorder in the US. The high numbers are a cause for concern and parents should communicate with their children and be aware of what is going on in their teen’s life.
Anxiety in school going children and teens can often be caused because of the pressure to be successful. They may feel overwhelmed when they fail to meet their own expectations or those of their parents. Older children and teens may also be anxious as they become more aware of current issues and negative things that are happening around them.
Additionally with social media, today’s children and teens are constantly connected, making it difficult not to compare themselves to others. More often than not, they fall short in their comparisons, resulting in low self-esteem, discontentment and anxiety.
Anxiety Disorders in Children
Following are the most commonly occurring anxiety disorders in children and teens”
1. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
GAD is when children worry about everything everyday. Children with GAD worry about things that are quite usual, such as exams, and report cards. However, with GAD, the anxiety is more often and more intense. The worries that they experience are very real and it is difficult to ease their fears.
Children with GAD can have worries about everything from taking the school bus, to how the weather will be in a day. They may be anxious over their future, or afraid of their family members getting hurt when they go out.
With GAD, the child is always worried about something. Not only does it make it hard for the child to concentrate in school but also to relax and have fun. Children with GAD most likely also suffer from disrupted sleep and have difficulty eating well. They will often feel tired and afraid, seemingly over matters that are not significant.
2. Separation anxiety disorder (SAD)
Separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage in babies that starts around 8 months. Babies feel discomfort when they are apart from their parents or primary caregiver because parents are familiar and they know that their parents mean safety. This anxiety usually resolves by the time the child is around 2.
However, when the child does not move past this stage and continues to feel afraid when apart from their parents, he or she might have separation anxiety disorder. Children with SAD feel anxiety when they are in school and are fearful when their parents are not around.
SAD may result in the child missing many daily activities, such as school or sports. Children with SAD may cry, act out or just plainly refuse to be somewhere without their parents. They may have trouble sleeping in their own room as they need to be close to their parents or primary caregiver. If not given proper attention, SAD will cause much disruption in the lives of the children and their families.
3. Selective Phobia
Young children may have certain fears such as being afraid of the dark or loud noises like thunder. These are normal fears in which an adult can easily calm them down by holding them or just by telling them that they are safe and there is nothing to be scared of.
This is not so when your child has a phobia. Children with selective phobia are usually so terrified that even their parents have a hard time trying to comfort them. They feel lasting, intense and extreme fear of a specific thing, such as spiders, blood or an animal. Children with a phobia will usually try their best to avoid the thing that they are afraid of.
For example, if the child has a phobia of clowns, she might decide to avoid going to all birthday parties because there might be a clown there.
4. Selective Mutism
Selective mutism is often overlooked when it comes to anxiety in children. Children with selective mutism seem to be very quiet and refuse to talk when they are at school, with friends, as well as other places where they do not feel comfortable. Note that they do talk at home or with people who they are close with.
5. Panic Attacks
While panic attacks are not the norm in young children, childhood anxiety that is not dealt with properly may result in panic attacks later on when the child is older. A panic attack occurs when there are four or more of the following symptoms
- Short of breath
- Increased heart rates and heart palpitations
- Chest pain
- Feeling choked
- Feeling dizzy
- Hot flashes or chills
- Being very afraid of losing control
- Abdominal pain
- Paresthesias – Numbness / tingling
- Derealization – Feeling of unreality
- Depersonalization – Being detached from oneself
When to worry about child anxiety?
There is no cause for worry if your child is anxious occasionally. However, it would be wise to seek professional help when:
- Your child is constantly anxious.
- Nothing seems to be able to calm them down.
- The anxiety seems to be getting worse instead of better as they grow.
- Their anxiety is affecting everyday activities such as school, friendships and family life.
Child anxiety treatments
There are several treatments that can help manage your child’s anxiety. Do remember that a visit to the doctor in itself can be quite frightening to a young child, so remember to talk to the child to prepare her for the doctor’s visit.
The type of treatment depends on the cause of their anxiety as well as your child’s age. Here are some that have been found to be very effective:
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is a therapy that aims to manage anxiety by changing thoughts to change behavior. CBT works on the premise that a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are interconnected. It will help your child to overcome anxiety by improving state of mind as well as breaking down the anxiety issue into smaller, manageable parts.
If your child is a little older, counselling may help them to understand what is the cause of their anxiety, process it and work through the issue.
If your child’s anxiety is very severe, anxiety medicines are also an option. Anxiety medication should only be taken under a doctor’s directions. Sometimes, medication is used together with other therapies.
Anxiety can be very debilitating for young children. This is especially so as they do not understand why they are feeling the way they do. If your child is always worrying and experiencing anxiety on a regular basis, help is available. Do let your child’s doctor know about the condition as the right treatment will definitely be beneficial in the long run.