Children can experience health anxiety — a preoccupation with serious illness — just like adults.

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Kids don’t always get enough credit. They may still be learning and developing, but they’re individuals with their own thoughts, feelings, and worries.

Health concerns can be scary for anyone, and when children are faced with medical challenges they can’t yet understand, concern may evolve into something known as health anxiety.

“Hypochondria” is an outdated term for what’s now known as illness anxiety disorder or somatic symptom disorder.

These two similar conditions are both forms of health anxiety, a preoccupying belief that you have, or undoubtedly will develop, a serious health condition. However, they do have their differences.

Illness anxiety disorder involves apprehension about illness even if you’re not experiencing symptoms.

Somatic symptom disorder does involve symptoms. Though symptoms are often mild or natural physiological functions, people with the disorder find themselves fixating on the symptoms and are convinced of their connection to an illness.

Yes, children can develop illness anxiety disorder.

In fact, authors of a 2020 practitioner review suggest health anxiety may be underdiagnosed in children because there’s a lack of understanding about how it presents in young people.

What is health anxiety a symptom of?

It’s natural to have some concern about health, even as a child.

Health anxiety may be fleeting and revolve around a single experience, like a classmate who has become ill, or be more long lasting and revolve around a larger experience, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long-term health anxiety behaviors can be a symptom of other mental health conditions, such as:

It can also be important to rule out underlying medical conditions when talking with children about health anxiety.

Just because a child may show excessive worry or distress about their health doesn’t mean they’re not experiencing something real.

Your child may have higher chances of developing illness anxiety disorder if they:

  • are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with natural bodily functions and sensations
  • are raised in a family where health anxieties were openly discussed
  • have caregivers who are intensely concerned about health issues
  • have experienced serious illness or medical trauma
  • have had a sibling experience serious illness
  • are overexposed to health-related materials

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), symptoms of illness anxiety disorder can include:

  • excessive worry about life threatening or debilitating sickness
  • absence of clinically relevant symptoms
  • extreme anxiety about health-related issues
  • unnecessary or repetitive health behaviors
  • possible avoidance of medical care or overuse of medical care
  • worry that exceeds the seriousness of a medical condition that is occurring

In everyday life, these symptoms might look like:

  • too-frequent doctor or school nurse visits
  • constant emergency room visitations
  • unnecessary use of medical supplies, like bandages
  • obsessive health research
  • doing multiple self-examinations during the day
  • repetitive handwashing or sanitation
  • overuse or unnecessary use of health supplements
  • self-medicating
  • always talking about being sick or needing to get something “checked out”
  • avoidance of social activities for fear of illness
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Recognizing health anxiety in your child can help you work through underlying causes.

In a 2020 practitioner review, researchers identified three ways parents and caregivers might help address health anxiety in children.

Educate them

Children may not understand health on the same level as adults.

They may not yet have the broader concept of disease mechanics or human immunology that helps other people alleviate their health fears.

If they have a friend with a chronic illness who is always sneezing, they may think sneezing is a sign they’re seriously ill, for example.

Teaching children that their bodies do some amazing yet occasionally odd things can empower them to embrace its natural protective responses.

Offer reassurance

Children may turn toward parents and caregivers for reassurance before healthcare professionals.

Acknowledging what they’re feeling without feeding into it, as well as avoiding saying things like “It’s all in your head,” can help children talk through health anxiety.

Once children feel secure, safe, and supported by the people they’re closely bonded with, professional treatment can involve methods like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help restructure and challenge unhelpful health beliefs.

Evaluate your own habits

Children from families with a history of health anxiety or excessive health-related exposure may have a higher chance of developing illness anxiety disorder.

If you’ve noticed health anxiety behaviors in your child, you may benefit from taking a step back and looking at the family dynamic as a whole.

If you, or anyone else in the family, are experiencing unhelpful health behaviors, addressing them may be one way you can help improve those same behaviors in your child.

“Health anxiety,” an umbrella term for illness anxiety disorder and somatic symptom disorder, knows no age limits.

Children can develop health anxiety for a number of reasons, including a poor understanding of natural bodily functions, family exposure to illness, or living with another person experiencing health anxiety.

Reassurance, acknowledgment, and professional guidance can all help alleviate health anxiety in children.