Anxiety in Children: What You Need to Know
Growing up is hard enough for most children; the first day at school, making new friends, learning new skills, and getting along with siblings is never easy.
It’s therefore reasonable for children to feel anxious in a new environment, around strangers, after watching a scary movie, or when encountering a large animal. This type of anxiety is temporary and usually subsides after some reassurance and encouragement from parents.
Children who suffer from anxiety disorders, on the other hand, experience extreme fear, anxiety, and nervousness. They tend to be withdrawn, shy and actively avoid places or situations that trigger their anxiety. Anxiety in children can make new experiences such as riding a bike much more scary than usual. Such children are more likely to skip school, miss out on essential social experiences, perform poorly, and engage in substance abuse.
Children with anxiety disorders need more than just parental re-assurance or the comfort of a stable home. Just like adults with anxiety, these children need professional help before their lives are ruined by this debilitating mental illness.
How to Recognise Anxiety in Your Child
Although anxiety is treatable, an overwhelming majority of children with anxiety disorders are not getting the help they need. This is because most parents, teachers or guardians are unaware of the signs of anxiety in children. If your child is suffering from anxiety, there is a lot that you can do to help.
The following are symptoms of anxiety in children, which can help you recognise the problem early enough:
- Sleep problems
- Unexplained stomach upsets
- Shaking or trembling in social situations
- Chronic fatigue
- Panic attacks
- Extreme anxiety
- Constant crying
- Tantrums and meltdowns
- Highly sensitive
- Anger problems
- Refusing to attend school, speak to others, or participate in social activity
- Constantly seeks reassurance or approval
- Stubborn without any reason
- Gets very upset when separated from parents or a caregiver
- Selective mutism
Causes of Anxiety in Children
Anxiety in children shares the same root causes as in adults. The same triggers and experiences that lead to adult anxiety disorders also affect children. Due to their young age, children are more vulnerable to anxiety triggers and are more likely to develop anxiety disorders. This is especially common when they experience a traumatic event or sustained levels of stress.
Certain children are also more susceptible to anxiety disorders than others, and may even develop anxiety if they are living with adults with the same problem.
Common causes of anxiety in children include:
- Exposure to abuse or neglect at home or school
- Physical violence
- An emotionally traumatic event such as the death of a close relative
- Constant moving which makes the child unable to cope with new or unfamiliar environments
- Serious medical illness
- Separation from parents due to divorce or abandonment
- Domestic conflicts such as constant arguing, shouting, or fighting by parents
Types Of Anxiety That Affect Children
Common types of anxiety, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, equally affect both adults and children. However, certain types of anxiety are more prevalent in children. They include:
Separation anxiety: For children under the age of three, being separated from their parents can cause some anxiety. This is natural for most kids at that age. With time, they outgrow this fear and get used to being with other relatives, teachers, playmates or caregivers. However, children older than 3 years with separation anxiety experience excessive fear when separated from their parents. Such kids will cling to the parent, refuse to go to school or play with other children for fear of being away from the parents. Separation anxiety causes physical and psychological symptoms which include headaches, nausea, nightmares and difficulty sleeping.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder: All children worry about homework, school grades, or performance in sports. Kids with GAD worry excessively about the same things, but more frequently and with greater fear than other kids. They also obsess about things that children of their age are not expected to worry about, such as the weather or war. GAD can result in insomnia, muscle tension, digestion problems, nausea, dizziness or chronic fatigue. Children with GAD have difficulty eating, playing, making friends, or concentrating at school. Such kids will seek constant approval from others but never stop worrying no matter how often the reassurance is given.
Panic Disorder: If your child has at least two panic attacks, and lives in fear of having another one, then he/she may have a panic disorder. Children with this type of anxiety disorder will have an excessive fear of losing control, dying or going mad for no reason. They will also experience dizziness, choking, trouble breathing, racing heart, nausea, nightmares, or fever.
Social Anxiety Disorder: Kids with social anxiety disorder exhibit intense fear of social activities such as games, talking to or speaking in front of other children, or answering questions in class. Also known as social phobia, this type of anxiety will force kids to avoid school, playgrounds, and other crowded areas. They will complain of physical symptoms such as tummy aches, shortness of breath or restlessness if coerced into social interactions. Social phobia will also affect their school performance and result in abnormal behavior such as throwing tantrums, clinging to parents and refusal to speak.
Specific Phobia: It’s normal for kids to fear large animals, dark spaces, insects, loud noises, or heights. This type of fear is short lived and goes away with parental assurance — however, kids with phobia experience intense fear and anxiety towards specific objects such as spiders, blood, costumes, dogs, or loud noises. This fear will last for an extended period and result in physical symptoms such as difficulty breathing, dizziness, nausea, and headaches. Kids with a phobia will actively avoid places or objects that trigger their phobias. They may also throw tantrums, cry a lot, and show excessive fear when in proximity to causes of their phobia.
Selective Mutism: This is a type of extreme social phobia characterised by the refusal to speak in social situations where it is expected or necessary. Such kids may be very talkative at home or with people they are close to. However, they will completely refuse to speak at school or with strangers to the extent that it interferes with school performance or making friends. Kids with selective mutism stay motionless, expressionless, and withdraw into a corner to avoid speaking. They usually turn their heads to avoid eye contact. This type of anxiety becomes evident around the age of 5.
If you pay close attention to your child’s behaviour, you may be able to identify their anxiety problems and seek help from a qualified therapist. Understanding the causes and triggers of anxiety in children is the first step in protecting them from its debilitating effects. Kids are tough, and with the correct therapy, they will quickly overcome their anxiety and grow into normal and healthy adults.