Anxiety disorders come in many forms – including separation anxiety, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
While anxiety is a normal emotional response to stress, anxiety disorders are psychiatric illnesses characterized by constant and overwhelming worry or fear. Anxiety types and their symptoms can include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder – This condition involves excessive and/or unrealistic, often unprovoked worry and stress.
- Phobia – This is an intense fear of a specific situation or object that may lead to avoidance of everyday activities.
- Social anxiety – This condition is associated with overwhelming self-consciousness or worry about being judged in social situations.
- Separation anxiety – This is the most common anxiety condition in children and often involves fear that something will happen to family members, or to the child himself or herself, if they are apart.
- Panic disorder – In this condition, feelings of intense fear strike suddenly and regularly, without warning. Physical symptoms like irregular heartbeats, muscle tightness, shortness of breath and sweating often occur.
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – This type of anxiety takes the form of excessively preoccupying thoughts or repetitive actions performed to try to relieve the anxiety.
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – This condition results from a traumatic experience. Sufferers may have nightmares, flashbacks and unexplained fear.
Anxiety disorders affect one in eight children and, if they go unrecognized and untreated, can lead to poor school performance or socialization, loss of sleep and even eventual substance abuse.
Tests & Diagnosis
If your child is experiencing feelings of panic, fear and uneasiness; problems sleeping; shortness of breath or heart palpitations (irregular beats); an inability to be still and calm; nausea or other digestive distress unrelated to illness; muscle tension; dizziness; frequent tearfulness or crying; decreased interest in favorite activities or low energy; increased irritability; low self-esteem or guilt; decreased appetite; poor concentration; or other unexplained behavioral changes, anxiety may be to blame.
If your child’s doctor suspects an anxiety disorder, he or she will first review your child’s symptoms – often asking your child about specific problems or fears, examining your child’s past medical history and family psychiatric history, and ordering tests for medical conditions – like an underactive thyroid – which can cause anxiety symptoms. If medical conditions are ruled out, your child’s doctor can diagnose a specific anxiety disorder based on symptoms and develop a plan to help him or her cope.
Your child’s doctor, or a therapist recommended by the doctor, may try a form of talk therapy – called cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) – to help your child figure out ways to think and act in situations that normally cause anxiety. The doctor or therapist may recommend relaxing activities, breathing exercises or positive thinking to help your child manage anxiety producing thoughts.
Your child’s doctor may also recommend individual psychotherapy, parent guidance sessions, group psychotherapy (with other children) or school-based counseling, depending on your child’s needs.
If your child’s anxiety is severe and does not respond to behavioral therapy, the doctor may recommend a type of antidepressant – known as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) – to reduce symptoms.
What caused my child’s anxiety?
The cause of most anxiety disorders is unknown, but genetic, brain biochemistry (hormone and chemical levels), an overactive fight-or-flight response and stressful events can all play a role.
What can I do to help during my child’s treatment for anxiety?
You can help your child manage his or her anxiety by paying attention to your child’s feelings and listening to his or her concerns; staying calm when your child becomes anxious about a situation; praising accomplishments in managing anxiety, but not punishing mistakes; modifying your expectations and being flexible with plans during stressful periods; and talking to your child’s doctor if you have additional concerns.
Do medications for anxiety have side effects?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning several years ago that certain antidepressants may cause suicidal thoughts or behaviors in a small number of children and adolescents, but these medicines have not been prohibited for children and there were no suicides in the studies that led to the warnings. Talk to your child’s doctor about any potential side effects or concerns.
Where can I find a support group?
We will provide you with resources to help both you and your child. The Resources link on this webpage is also a good source for more information about anxiety and support groups.