Is My Child Experiencing Childhood Anxiety?
Updated December 18, 2018
Reviewer Laura Angers
Having feelings of anxiousness is a normal part of childhood development. It is quite normal for a child to have separation anxiety or a certain amount of social anxiety around strangers. It is normal for them to feel nervous about tests at school, or for them to worry about things going on in their little world.
However, for some children, feelings of anxiety go far beyond the normal parameters of childhood development. For these children, feelings of worry and anxiousness are debilitating. They may not even fully understand their feelings or why they feel afraid. They may have trouble communicating their feelings of fear and worry, and some children may not try to communicate this at all.
Because children do not understand what is happening to them, it can be difficult for parents to know if their child is suffering from childhood anxiety disorders. To better understand your child and get them help if needed, it is important to understand the different symptoms of childhood anxiety and the outward signs that you are likely to see if your child has this mental illness.
Childhood Anxiety Disorders
According to research and the compilation of diagnostic materials that psychiatrists use, children can be diagnosed with any of the same anxiety disorders that adults may be diagnosed with. Childhood anxiety disorders are very similar to adult anxiety disorders. The largest difference is that children do not understand what they are feeling and cannot communicate it to others, making it difficult for a diagnosis to be made.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder is an anxiety disorder in which the child is uncharacteristically fearful of social situations. While it is normal for a child to have some fear of strangers, a social anxiety disorder may present itself as fear or anxiousness about being around other children their age, or in other social situations.
Panic disorder is a severe form of anxiety in which the child may experience panic attacks. These panic attacks are often out of the blue, with no real apparent reason for the anxiety. They may have some physical and emotional symptoms with these panic attacks, and they usually subside as quickly as they come on.
Agoraphobia is another type of anxiety disorder which is characterized by not wanting to leave home. They may even not want to leave their bedroom. With agoraphobia, the child wants to stay in their safe place and venturing out of that safe place even for activities such as school results in crippling anxiety.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder is the most common type of anxiety disorder. With a generalized anxiety disorder, the child may feel anxious quite frequently and for many reasons or no reason at all. They will have many of the signs and symptoms of childhood anxiety much of the time, and they may not be able to control these feelings of constant fear and worry.
Some children are afraid of one thing in particular. They could have a phobia of literally anything. While some children are scared of certain things or situations, like spiders, children with a true phobia experience a debilitating fear even at the thought of the object of their phobia.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is another common anxiety disorder in children. With obsessive-compulsive disorder, the child will require repetitive movements or certain routines. When those routines or repetitive movements are interrupted, they can become highly anxious, irritable, aggressive, or panicked.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
If a child has gone through something traumatic, such as abuse or even a death in the family, they could be diagnosed with PTSD. This is an anxiety disorder born of trauma, in which anything that reminds them of that trauma makes them highly anxious.
Acute Stress Disorder
Acute stress disorder is an anxiety disorder in which the child feels a tremendous amount of stress for little or no reason. They may feel stress about school, their home life, or their social life. Again, this is not as common in children as it is in adults, but it is certainly a possibility in childhood anxiety disorders.
Childhood Anxiety Symptoms
There are many different symptoms, both physical and emotional that your child may have a result of childhood anxiety. For a diagnosis of childhood anxiety, your child must have these symptoms for an extended period, and they must occur frequently or constantly during that period.
Anxiety gives your child a feeling of energy that they don't know what to do with. This can lead to extreme restlessness. Your child may not be able to sit still at all, and they may fidget quite frequently. Restlessness may sometimes be attributed to ADHD, so it is important to recognize other symptoms that your child has to determine if they have childhood anxiety.
Being anxious all the time is tiring, and can often cause fatigue in children. Fatigue can also be caused by insomnia, another symptom of childhood anxiety. Your child may feel very tired and not be able to explain why. They may not want to engage in certain activities because they simply feel too worn out to participate.
Trouble concentrating is another symptom of childhood anxiety. This is another symptom that can sometimes be chalked up to ADHD, but it is an important symptom of childhood anxiety. Your child may be so focused on their worries and fears that their mind cannot focus on anything else.
Many children who have childhood anxiety are very irritable. They don't understand the feelings that they are having, and it can make them very irritable with everything around them. They may get easily frustrated with themselves or others.
Muscle tension is another symptom of childhood anxiety. Anxiety makes you very tense all the time, which can lead to muscle weakness or soreness. Other physical symptoms may include nausea or headaches, also a result of constant tension.
Many children with childhood anxiety experience insomnia. Their minds are so busy thinking about the things they are worried about and afraid of that they are unable to settle down to sleep. Insomnia due to childhood anxiety is rarely able to be treated with natural remedies like melatonin.
The primary symptom of childhood anxiety is an excessive worry. Your child may worry about things that they truly don't understand. Sometimes they may be feeling worried or afraid and not even know or understand why they are feeling that way. They will feel excessively worried or afraid much of the time if they have childhood anxiety disorder.
Signs Of Childhood Anxiety
Knowing the symptoms of childhood anxiety is important, but it can be difficult for a parent to be able to recognize those symptoms with just that information. It is helpful as a parent to know exactly what to look for to see if your child is experiencing childhood anxiety. There are physical, emotional and behavioral signs that will point to childhood anxiety. If your child has many of these signs, you should seek treatment for them as quickly as possible.
Physical Signs Of Childhood Anxiety
There are some physical signs that your child may be suffering from childhood anxiety. Take note if your child complains of any of these ailments and there does not seem to be a medical reason for them.
- Headaches or stomachaches that do not respond to over the counter medications
- Refusing to eat snacks or lunch
- Fidgety and distracted
- Shakes or sweats in anxious situations
Remember that your child probably does not understand their feelings or why they are not feeling well. If you can't find any medical reason for the headaches or stomachaches, or the sweating and shaking, then these could be signs of childhood anxiety.
Emotional Signs Of Childhood Anxiety
There are also many emotional signs of childhood anxiety. Children often cannot express their feelings in words that parents can understand easily. They likely do not understand why they are feeling the way they do. It is important to know what to look for regarding signs that your child is in emotional distress.
Some of the common emotional signs of childhood anxiety are:
- Frequent crying
- Appears to act sensitively to situations
- Is fearful of making even small mistakes
- Test anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Worries about things far in the future
- Worried or afraid during drop off to school or daycare
- Has frequent nightmares about the death of a loved one
- Easily distracted from even play
- Has obsessive thoughts or behaviors
- Has meltdowns or temper tantrums for no apparent reason, especially if not age appropriate
Being aware of your child's emotional state can be difficult if they do not talk to you about their concerns. You may have to do some investigative work and try to get your child to open up to you and tell you about their worries, fears, and nightmares to be able to gauge if they are having childhood anxiety.
Behavioral Signs Of Childhood Anxiety
There are also some behavioral signs of childhood anxiety. It can be easy as a parent to dismiss behavioral problems and assume that they are just a part of your child's normal development. After all, children do act out at different ages. However, the presence of these behavioral signs in conjunction with other signs of childhood anxiety could be indicative of a problem that needs to be addressed.
- Constantly asks what if about scary situations
- Silent when he is supposed to be working or playing with others
- Refuses to go to school
- Remains alone much of the time
- Avoids social situations
- Constantly seeks approval
- Says "I can't" without apparent reason
Your child may have other behavioral signs that can be concerning or even frustrating to you as their parent, such as refusing to go out to dinner or get ready to go somewhere. It is important that you ask your child why they are refusing and try to determine if it is because they are anxious or worried.
Childhood Anxiety Treatment
Childhood anxiety treatment is often extremely successful. There are too many forms of treatment, which are therapy and medications. It is generally recommended that children undergo treatment with both methods congruently. Studies have found that a combination of mediation and therapy is much more successful than therapy alone or medication alone.
The most common psychotherapy method used for childhood anxiety treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy. Research has proven that cognitive behavioral therapy is the most effective form of psychotherapy for the treatment of anxiety in both children and adults. For children, the therapy sessions and exercises are tailored to their age level.
Studies have also found that a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and family therapy or family management is much more effective than cognitive behavioral therapy alone. This study found that children who underwent both CBT and family management had much higher success rates and lower relapse rates.
Few medications are approved for use in children for the treatment of anxiety. The most common type of medication prescribed for childhood anxiety are SSRI drugs, which are a type of antidepressant that is also used for anxiety. Of these SSRI drugs, the most commonly prescribed for children are fluoxetine, or Prozac, and sertraline, or Zoloft.
If your child has these signs and symptoms of childhood anxiety, it is important that you seek help for them as soon as possible. A good therapist can evaluate your child and determine if they have an anxiety disorder, and if so prescribe a course of treatment. Most children who undergo treatment of both therapy and medication experience a reduction of symptoms or may have their symptoms eliminated entirely over time.