By Patti Richards
Although childhood should be the most carefree time in a person’s life, more children than ever before struggle with anxiety. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 25 percent of all children between the ages of 13 and 18 deal with some level of anxiety, and nearly six percent of those have severe anxiety disorder.1
Increased pressure to excel in all areas, including sports, extracurricular activities and volunteerism, leaves children with little time to simply be kids. Add in the stress caused by college aptitude tests, advanced placement classes and the push to get accepted by top schools, and it’s enough to make the most well-adjusted adult crumble under the pressure — much less a developing adolescent.
Knowing the causes of anxiety and how to recognize the symptoms can equip parents in preventing and treating this disorder in their children.
Causes of Childhood Anxiety
KidsHealth describes anxiety as a type of stress that can be experienced in many different ways. For children, anxiety tends to form around worrying about what will happen in the future based on past experiences. The fight-or-flight response — which often manifests itself with rapid heartbeat, sweating, difficulty breathing and trembling in the hands and legs — is the body’s way of preparing to get out of a dangerous situation.2
Although the exact cause of childhood anxiety is unknown, studies do show that the brain of a child with anxiety reacts differently to stressful situations than one that does not suffer from the disorder. Onset varies, but typically, childhood anxiety develops between the ages of 13 and 18.
Childhood anxiety can take on many forms, but some of the most common include:
- Test anxiety
- School anxiety
- Extreme shyness
- Social anxiety3
Recognizing that your child is experiencing mild to moderate anxiety, talking to your child’s doctor and finding healthy ways to help her cope with stressful situations can keep anxious thoughts or feelings under control. But if anxiety issues begin to interfere with daily life and your child experiences physical symptoms, thoughts, behaviors or emotions that can’t be controlled, an anxiety disorder might be the cause.4
Childhood Anxiety Disorders
The good news is, anxiety disorders are treatable. However, according to the 2015 Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report, 80 percent of children with an anxiety disorder did not get treatment.5
Each type of anxiety has characteristics that distinguish it from others, but some of the more generalized symptoms include the following:
- Excessive anxiety and worry
- Inability to control fear or worry
- Poor concentration
- Sleep disruption
- Muscle tension3
KidsHealth lists the following anxiety disorders as some of the most common in children:
- Generalized anxiety — A common anxiety disorder marked by excessive worry about the health or safety of family members and the future in general. Physical symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension or tiredness, often accompany this type of anxiety, causing children to miss school or other activities.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder — OCD produces excessive preoccupying thoughts and repetitive actions as a way to relieve anxiety.
- Phobias — Intense fear of specific things or situations that are not dangerous, such as heights, dogs or flying, causing children to avoid what they fear.
- Social phobia (social anxiety) — This disorder is triggered by social situations or the need to speak in front of others.
- Panic attacks — Panic attacks are bursts of anxiety that cause sudden and intense symptoms, like a pounding heart, shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness or tingling sensations.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — This disorder results from some kind of traumatic past experience. Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares, fear and the avoidance of the trauma that caused the anxiety.2
Helping Children With Anxiety
If you suspect your child is suffering from anxiety, a proper diagnosis is the first and the most important step to healing. Your child’s pediatrician or primary care provider will connect you with treatment professionals that can best meet your child’s needs.
Along with the right diagnosis and treatment, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says parents can take the following steps to help their children deal with anxiety at home:
- Pay attention to your child’s feelings.
- Stay calm when your child becomes anxious about a situation or event.
- Recognize and praise small accomplishments.
- Don’t punish mistakes or lack of progress.
- Be flexible, but try to maintain a normal routine.
- Modify expectations during stressful periods.
- Plan for transitions. (For example, allow extra time in the morning if getting to school is difficult.)6
Providing a safe home environment with plenty of downtime that encourages play is an important part of raising stress-free children who are well-balanced and happy. Choose extracurricular activities that encourage fun rather than performance or competition, and limit those activities to one or two, especially during the elementary and middle school years. Teaching children balance rather than busyness builds a strong foundation for a healthy life.
And no matter the age, the right diagnosis, medication and home intervention tools can help keep an anxiety disorder well-managed.
1 “Any Anxiety Disorder Among Children.” National Institute of Mental Health, Accessed October 12, 2017.
2 “Anxiety Disorders.” KidsHealth, March 2014.
3 Tracy, Natasha. “Anxiety and Children: Symptoms, Causes of Childhood Anxiety.” HealthyPlace, June 29, 2016.
4 “Childhood Anxiety & Related Disorders.” AnxietyBC, August 1, 2017.
5 Children’s Mental Health Report. Child Mind Institute, 2015.
6 “Tips for Parents and Caregivers.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Accessed October 15, 2017.