understanding childhood anxietyAnxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns for children and adults, and affects approximately 20% of children and adolescents. Children with anxiety are often well-behaved and quiet, so their anxiety may go unnoticed by parents and teachers.

Understanding the type of anxiety is the first thing parents can do to help their children. Is it anxiety or an anxiety disorder? Anxiety is a natural human reaction, and it can prove to be an important function when one perceives danger. An anxiety disorder is persistent, irrational, and overwhelming worry and fear that interferes with everyday life. Anxiety disorders become a true hindrance in a child’s home and school life. A child with an anxiety disorder may become so distressed and uncomfortable, they begin to avoid activities and/or social situations.

Signs and Symptoms of Childhood Anxiety

  • Clinginess
  • Impulsiveness
  • Irritability
  • Distractedness
  • Concentration or focus issues
  • Nervous movements or twitches
  • Jitteriness
  • Sleep problems
  • Restlessness
  • Sweaty hands
  • Accelerated heart rate and breathing
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Excessive worries

These symptoms can lead to poor school performance, a lack of socializing, and significant discord in the household. The good news is that pediatricians and psychotherapists understand anxiety disorders and can provide treatment, educate parents, and help children feel better.

It is extremely common for anxious children to avoid talking about how they feel. They may worry that their parents won’t understand or they may fear being judged. This can lead to many children with anxiety feeling alone or misunderstood.

Parents of anxious children have reported that they knew there was something different about their child, but did not realize it was an anxiety problem. Some parents wait for their child to “grow out of it” while others view the anxious behaviors as normal. As a result, parents of anxious children and teens often feel confused about what to do, as well as frustrated and overwhelmed. Education is essential for parents.

Anxiety disorders are believed to be a combination of biological and environmental factors. Stressful events may trigger anxiety but stress alone is not the cause of an anxiety disorder.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

There are different types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and phobias.

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

A child with GAD will worry excessively about a variety of things, strive for perfection, and seek constant approval.

  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

A child with OCD may experience unwanted and intrusive thoughts (obsessions) or feel compelled to preform rituals (compulsions) in order to reduce anxiety.

  • Separation Anxiety Disorder

Children, most commonly 7-9 years old, who experience significant anxiety when separated from parents and are extremely homesick. These children typically refuse to have sleepovers and may even refuse to attend school.

  • Social Anxiety Disorder

A child that has intense fear of social or performance situations and activities. Social anxiety can significantly impact academic achievement.

  • Phobias

A child with an intense and irrational fear of strangers, heights, darkness, flying, animals, blood, insects, or being left alone, to name a possible few. Children may often begin to fear a specific object or situation after having an upsetting or traumatic experience, such as a dog bite or a car accident.

Keep in mind that your child’s anxiety disorder is not a sign of poor parenting. Anxiety can be successfully managed, and parents play a key role in helping their children manage their anxiety. When coping skills and positive behaviors are rewarded and practiced in the home, children and teens can learn to face their fears, take reasonable risks, and ultimately gain confidence.

Tips for Parents

  • Pay attention to your child’s feelings.
  • Don’t encourage your child to ignore or push away their anxious feelings.
  • Stay calm and logical. Don’t panic.
  • Recognize your child’s achievements.
  • Be an advocate for your child. Meet with your child’s teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, etc.
  • Encourage your child to participate in extracurricular activities.
  • Maintain routine whenever possible. Be consistent.
  • Help your child modify their expectations and accept they cannot control everything.
  • Plan the day and plan how to deal with changes to the plan. Teach your child flexibility.
  • Encourage your child to eat right, exercise, and get plenty of sleep.
  • Maintain a positive attitude.
  • Take time to relax. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed.
  • Help your child learn to relax.

Parents can help their children develop the appropriate skills and confidence to overcome their fears and anxieties. Children with anxiety can lead a full and happy life. Medication and therapy may be necessary, but parental support and education is essential.

Anxious child photo available from Shutterstock