Anxiety disorders in children
What are anxiety disorders?
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry or fear. It is an understandable reaction in people of all ages towards change or any other event causing significant amounts of stress. Just like adults it is normal for children to feel worried or anxious from time to time e.g., when they are starting school or relocating to a new house.
However, for some children anxiety can be a serious issue if it starts to interfere with their day-to-day functioning at school, home and social life. If anxiety becomes more than just passing worries and fears it might need the attention of a mental-health professional.
Symptoms of anxiety disorders
Symptoms of anxiety are the result of the body’s normal "fight or flight" response. It is the body's normal response to prepare us to deal with a real danger. The fight or flight response is meant to protect us from danger but with anxiety disorders, the "fight or flight" response is overactive and happens even when there is no real danger.
A parent or teacher might see the following signs in a child or teen who is anxious:
- Finding it hard to concentrate or pay attention
- Not sleeping or eating properly
- Waking in the night with nightmares
- Getting angry or irritable quickly
- Constant worrying
- Using the toilet often
- Always crying
- Being clingy all the time
- Complaining of stomach aches and feeling unwell (nausea)
- Missing school frequently
- Refusing to talk or do things
Kids or teens with anxiety might also feel symptoms that others can't see. Anxiety disorders can cause the following physical and emotional symptoms:
Physical Symptoms Include:
- Feel shaky or jittery
- Shortness of breath
- A hot face
- Clammy hands
- Dry mouth
- Racing heart.
- Quick breathing
- Muscle aches (especially stomach and headaches)
Emotional symptoms include:
- Feeling afraid, worried, or nervous
- Feeling "butterflies" in their stomach
- Excessive worrying about things before they happen
- A need for perfection
- Constant thoughts and fears about safety
- Reluctance or refusal to go to school
- Inability to concentrate
- Trouble sleeping
- Inability to relax Common anxiety disorders
There are several different types of anxiety disorders that can affect children. The most common disorders include:
- Separation anxiety
- Generalised anxiety
- Social anxiety
- Panic disorder
- Specific phobias
- Selective mutism
What causes anxiety disorders?
Several factors play a role in over-activating the ‘fight or flight’ response. These factors include:
A child who has a family member with any of the anxiety disorders is more likely to be similarly affected. Children might inherit genes that make them more prone to anxiety.
Genetics help direct the way brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) work. If specific brain chemicals such as dopamine or serotonin are in a short supply it can cause anxiety.
- Environmental factors
If the things happening in a child’s life are stressful and difficult to cope with e.g loss, serious illness, death of a loved one, violence, trauma or abuse can lead to some children becoming more prone to anxiety.
- Learned behaviours
Growing up in a family where other members are fearful or anxious can also "teach" a child to be afraid or worry excessively.
How can these be treated?
The treatment for Anxiety disorders might include counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy or medication depending on the type and severity of the disorder. The treatment plan designed for your child will depend on their age and the cause of their anxiety and aims at reducing the anxiety
Talking to a trained professional might help your child understand what's making them anxious and allow them to work through these stressful situations.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
It has been proven to help with anxiety that isn't very severe, and is commonly offered to young people with anxiety disorders.
With CBT a child works with the therapist to find ways to change the way they think and then they find ways to cope in situations that make them anxious.
If your child's anxiety problem does not get better with therapy, your doctor may talk to you about trying medication. They're usually only prescribed by doctors who specialise in children and young people's mental health.
How can I help my child with anxiety?
If your child has an anxiety disorder, you can help them in the following ways:
- Seeking help for your child at the first sign of excessive worrying will help to keep worries from growing
- Find a trained therapist for your child
- Talk often with the therapist, and ask them how you can best help your child.
- Praise your child’s efforts to cope with fears and worry.
- Help kids talk about their feelings
- Listen, and let them know you understand and accept them.
- Encourage your child to take small steps forward.
- Be patient (It takes a while for kids to feel better)
- Staying calm in front of your child, as they often model their behaviours based on how you react to several situations