Nearly all children show signs of anxiety from time to time. Nervousness on the first day of school or feeling scared after watching a frightening movie are normal emotions for children, and parents can help ease a child’s fears and worries by being supportive and comforting. However, if a parent or family member can’t calm the child and the anxiety persists to the point that it starts to interfere with schoolwork and making friends, the child may have an anxiety disorder.
Researchers believe that childhood anxiety disorders are fairly common. About 10 percent of children will develop an anxiety disorder at some point, according to Medscape (2000). Anxiety disorders that may occur in children are separation anxiety, specific phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Other childhood anxiety disorders include social phobia and panic disorder. Unfortunately, anxiety disorders in children can be confused with other mental health issues, making it difficult to track precise statistics.
Symptoms of Childhood Anxiety Disorder
Depending on the anxiety disorder, symptoms in a child can range from hyperarousal (including jumpiness and irritability) to symptoms affecting a child’s ability to think and concentrate. A more precise set of symptoms depends on the type of anxiety disorder the child or adolescent is experiencing.
Some of the most common childhood anxiety disorders and their symptoms include:
- Separation anxiety disorder: Children with this disorder feel intense anxiety and fear when they are separated from a parent or other caregiver, or are anticipating a separation. They fear not only for their own safety, but also the safety of their loved one. They may also refuse to go to bed at night or to go to school.
- Social phobia: Social phobia (also called social anxiety disorder) is more prevalent in adolescents than in young children. Adolescents with this disorder avoid situations that require interaction with others and can exhibit great anxiety when they must engage in these interactions. Social phobia can impair academic performance as well as social development. “Selective mutism” (refusal to speak at all outside the home or in certain situations) is another symptom sometimes observed in children and adolescents with social anxiety disorder.
- Specific phobias: A specific phobia is one in which feelings of fear and terror are directed toward a specific object, place or situation. Children in particular are prone to phobias about the dark, certain animals, thunderstorms, and visiting the doctor or dentist. The primary symptoms of a specific phobia are extreme avoidance of the source of fear and acute anxiety when the source of the fear is encountered.
Treatment for Childhood Anxiety Disorder
Parents of a child with an anxiety disorder should be an active part of the child’s recovery plan. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective for many children and teens with anxiety disorders. Patients practice coping with their anxiety in a safe environment and learn how to keep themselves from having destructive thoughts. Antidepressants may also be appropriate for some young patients. See a child psychiatrist for any questions you may have on treatment options.
Anxiety Disorders Association of America. (n.d.). Childhood anxiety disorders. Retrieved July 25, 2010, from http://www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children/childhood-anxiety-disorders.
D’Alli, R. (2000). Childhood anxiety disorder. Retrieved July 25, 2010, from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/430596.
Narsad. (n.d.). Childhood anxiety disorder. Retrieved July 25, 2010, from http://www.narsad.org/?q=node/144/disorder.