Anxiety disorders affect a large percentage of the population, and unfortunately, our children are no exception. An estimated 1 in 8 youths will be affected by an anxiety disorder at some point during their childhood.
Is it normal worry, or is it anxiety?
So how can a parent tell if their child’s anxious feelings are just a phase or a sign of something deeper? Anxiety disorders are diagnosed by screening for specific criteria such as how often symptoms occur, how long they have been going on, and how much your child’s quality of life has been affected.
When fear and worry become chronic and are affecting your child’s day-to-day life, it is time to seek diagnosis and treatment.
What are the signs of anxiety in children?
The presentation of anxiety symptoms varies from individual to individual but can include:
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling shaky or jittery
- Increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive worry
- Excessive sweating
- Avoidance of certain social situations
How to treat anxiety in children?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (also known as CBT) is a common way to treat adults and children who suffer from anxiety disorders. This form of talk therapy is a great alternative to medication and helps train your child how to identify and manage their thoughts and behaviors in ways that are positive and beneficial.
Lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, and remaining active may also help to ward off anxiety and boost your child’s emotional health.
In some cases, medication may be needed on a permanent or trial basis to help rebalance brain chemistry. Understandably, this is many parents’ last resort, especially for very young children. However, prescription medications can be very effective, especially in conjunction with talk therapy. SSRIs and SNRIs are some of the most common anxiety medications that work by regulating serotonin and have been approved by the FDA for use in children.
* It is important to note that some anti-depressants, including SSRIs, have been known to cause an increase of suicidal thoughts in some patients. The use of any such medication in children should be monitored and controlled closely by a doctor.
Different types of anxiety disorders
It is important to note that you may see some of the signs and symptoms of these disorders overlap in your child. Individuals with one form of anxiety are prone to experiencing multiple forms of anxiety.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): With GAD, children exhibit symptoms of anxiety without any specific triggers. It is usually identified by excessive worry, perfectionism, and a need for control or reassurance.
- Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD): Just as it sounds, SAD is characterized by anxiety and discomfort around social situations. Children may present as being extremely shy or nervous and may self-isolate or avoid social interactions.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Children who suffer from OCD feel compelled to perform certain rituals and routines in order to feel safe or prevent a certain outcome. For example, a fear of germs or getting sick may present as excessive handwashing.
- Panic Disorder: Children who suffer from panic disorder have recurrent attacks that include symptoms such as a feeling of imminent doom, a rapid heartbeat, sweating, shaking, nausea, or dizziness. Attacks typically last between 3 to 30 minutes and may happen daily or periodically.
- Agoraphobia: Agoraphobia is characterized by a fear of specific places or situations in which a child feels trapped or afraid of triggering a panic attack. Symptoms may present anytime a child leaves the home or in certain situations like crowds. Agoraphobia is rare in younger children, but the incidence increases into adolescence. Those who suffer from other anxiety disorders are more likely to develop agoraphobia. Most treatment plans center around exposure therapy.
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD occurs after a stressful or traumatic life event such as abuse or a natural disaster. Children who are affected by PTSD typically have nightmares or flashbacks to the traumatic event and may have trouble sleeping and become jumpy around loud noises and other triggers.
Other forms of anxiety in children include separation anxiety, selective mutism, and specific phobias. If you suspect that your child may have an anxiety disorder, contact your health professional today.