What is Anxiety
Anxiety, simply defined, is apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated bad event. It’s common in children and a normal reaction by the fight, flight, or freeze response connected to our survival instinct. Certain fears and anxieties are developmentally appropriate and shouldn’t be considered alarming as most children will work through them. It’s important to know what’s typical for your kid; each child has a different baseline. However, anxiety is on the rise in children as they face so many challenges. Parents should become concerned when their child’s behaviors don’t seem typical or show avoidance or extreme distress and interfere with daily activities. For a more thorough description of anxiety in children visit our previous blog Am I Worrying Too Much or Does my Young Child Have Anxiety? Signs Parents Need to Know.
Common Types of Child Anxiety
What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in Children
It’s the most often diagnosed disorder in children. GAD involves kids having excessive and unrealistic worries about the future and a broad range of bad things happening. These worries could be focused on what might happen, past and present behaviors, fitting in with peers, and/or doing well in school. This anxiety occurs across many situations and settings with symptoms present more often than not for at least a 6-month period. Often, this child will have low-self esteem and need reassurance constantly.
What is Social Anxiety Disorder in Children
This disorder involves avoidance of social situations and interactions. Children show intense shyness and fear of being judged in a negative way in adult and peer relationships, with symptoms present more often than not for at least a 6-month period and interfering with daily activities. Common fears include meeting new people, speaking in class, and public performance. Kids are likely to be highly self-conscious and have extreme difficulty in forming friendships.
Children and Phobias
Phobia involves intense fear and avoidance of specific things or situations, even though the actual threat of real harm is small, with symptoms present more often than not for at least a 6-month period. Common phobias include fear of heights, spiders, and going to the doctor.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children
A PTSD diagnosis requires some type of exposure to death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence. Symptoms include changes in sleep patterns, irritability, flashbacks/nightmares, reliving the event (often through drawings or playing), hypervigilance, avoiding trauma triggers, and problems with concentration, with symptoms present more often than not for at least a 1-month period and interfere with daily activities.
Separation Anxiety in Children
Separation anxiety relates to children’s fear and distress at being away from their main caregiver(s). Younger children may not understand their caregiver(s) left temporarily but will return, whereas older kids fear something bad happening to them while away. It’s developmentally appropriate until approximately 2 years old. It becomes an issue if it doesn’t reduce after this age, or its intensity remains severe.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in Children
OCD involves a child having excessive and persistent unwanted thoughts such as ordering, dirt/germs, being bad that lead to them feeling compelled to perform and repeat behaviors to make them stop. Common OCD behaviors include repeatedly washing hands, counting, saying certain phrases, and checking on things. These thoughts or behaviors occur for at least 1 hour per day and interfere with daily activities. Older kids are likely to understand these thoughts and feelings don’t make sense but are still driven to do them.
Please note these disorders require a diagnosis by a mental health or related-professional and require meeting criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, 5th edition.
What Not to Do when Your Child is Struggling with Anxiety
As parents, we’ve all made mistakes with our kids when we had the best of intentions. Here are examples of things to avoid:
- Dismissing emotions or label them “wrong or bad.”
- Pressuring your child to feel a certain way – this may lead to hiding emotions and you not recognizing seriousness of the problem.
- Saying, “Stop worrying.”
- Not seeking guidance from professionals. If undiagnosed and untreated, risk of your child using negative coping strategies increase (e.g., taking part in dangerous behaviors like self-harm, substance abuse, and bullying).
What to Do When you Child is Struggling with Anxiety
Here are some things that will help you and your child to understand and cope with child anxiety:
- Acknowledge your child’s condition and use accepting and normalizing language – it’s OK; other kids feel this way, there’s nothing wrong with you
- Reassure your child they are safe and will be safe and make sure they know they aren’t in trouble.
- Teach them how to recognize and name their feelings
- Teach and model healthy coping skills – kids may need to learn healthy coping, conflict resolution, and communication skills.
- Seek professional help from school resources, community resources, medical and/or behavioral health professionals.
If anxiety is getting in the way of your child enjoying life, it’s time to seek support.
For more information on Small Town Counseling services for children and teens, what to expect, and/or scheduling an appointment check out our Child and Teen Counseling Services or call 209-968-1707. FAQs and resources for anxiety are available in our Good Reads! For additional parenting resources visit Parenting Resources.
Common Types of Child Anxiety: What to Do and What Not to Do is written by David Cayton, M.A, M.S.. David has experience as a mental health professional working with children, teens, and professionals, an academic advisor, education-based research assistant, and student affairs Assistant Director at colleges and universities. At the time of this publishing, David Cayton is Trainer and Research Associate at Small Town Counseling® a group mental health practice located in California that helps individuals, groups, and organizations in promoting mental wellness and education on trauma and anxiety through mental health services and training.
Aetna – Kids and Anxiety: What’s Normal and When to Seek Help – https://www.aetna.com/health-guide/kids-anxiety-whats-normal-seek-help.html
American Psychological Association – Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, 5th edition.
Beyond Blue – Anxiety – https://healthyfamilies.beyondblue.org.au/age-6-12/mental-health-conditions-in-children/anxiety
Center for Disease Control – Anxiety and Depression in Children – https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/depression.html
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary – Anxiety https://www.merriamwebster.com/dictionary/anxiety
Washington Post – What Does Childhood Anxiety Look Like? Probably Not What You Think – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2018/10/09/what-does-childhood-anxiety-look-like-probably-not-what-you-think/