Just the Facts: Children & Anxiety

At some time or another, just like adults, all children feel anxious.  It’s a part of growing up and adjusting constantly to surroundings and new experiences.  Problems, though, develop when children have a persistent and nearly constant state of anxiety about life in general, or very specific elements of what they deal with so that fear takes over and controls them and keeps them from thriving.  It can affect them in their personal life, school life, and social life.

How Prevalent is Children’s Anxiety?

  • The most prevalent mental health disorder in children and teens
  • 10 – 20% of children and young people suffer a diagnosable anxiety disorder
  • Many more suffer with symptoms but don’t meet diagnostic criteria
  • 2 of every 5 grade school children have fears of separation from a parent
  • 2 of every 5 children aged 6 – 12 years have at least seven fears that they find troubling
  • Nearly one-third of children worry about their competence and require considerable reassurance
  • 1 of every 5 grade school children is afraid of heights, shy in new situations, or anxious about public speaking and social acceptance
  • Girls report more stress than boys – sometimes because of social expectations
  • Good news–most of these worries and stresses are outgrown or recede as children mature and develop. The key is knowing what is “normal” for a child at a certain age.

What Often Causes Anxiety in Children?

  • A fear-inducing experience that traumatizes the child
  • Overly anxious, worried, and fearful parent(s)
  • Overly demanding parent(s) ie: perfectionism
  • Child Abuse
  • Strong fear of failure and non-acceptance
  • Psychosis—genetic or neurotransmitter issues in the brain

What are the Most Common Symptoms and What Should I Be Looking For?

  • Overwhelming fear or reluctance to be involved in a certain activity or go to a certain place
  • Physical complaints (headache, stomach ache, sick in the morning, frequent urge to go to the bathroom, difficulty swallowing food, exhaustion, dizziness, etc.)
  • Overwhelmingly tense and on edge
  • Sleep changes (insomnia, repeated visits to parent’s room)
  • Change in eating habits
  • Avoidance of outside and interpersonal activities (school, parties, camp, slumber parties, safe strangers)
  • Constant need for reassurance (new situations, bedtime, school, storms, asking “is it bad?”)
  • Inattention, inability to concentrate, and poor school performance and grades
  • Explosive outbursts

What are the Most Effective Treatments?

  • Professional Counseling
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy from a trained professional
  • Appropriate Medications

While children “grow out of” some common fears that produce anxiety, intense anxiety shouldn’t be ignored.  It’s often best to see a professional counselor trained in dealing with anxieties to make sure what your child is going through is “normal” for the age, or needs additional help to overcome fears and feelings that are hindering their normal social relationships.

 

(Thanks in part to information from Jess P. Shatkin, MD, MPH, Vice Chair for Education, NYU Child Study Center, New York University School of Medicine, and others)