What Are The Symptoms Of Anxiety In Children?

Updated January 22, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health conditions in the United States. These types of disorders can affect a broad population. In fact, one in eight children is affected by anxiety disorders. Since it is so common, it is often overlooked as just worry or everyday childhood angst, but anxiety in children is much more than just worry, it is a serious condition that deserves consideration and treatment. Some child anxiety or childhood anxiety is normal since children are dealing with new things every day, and as children grow, they face unique physical challenges from puberty, as well as social and emotional ones as they learn to cope with their expanding world. Worrying about a test, they must take is normal, but for some kids, it can develop into chronic test anxiety. Some children don't cope well with parents returning to work following stays at home and must deal with separation anxiety.

Anxiety In Children Is More Common Than You Think

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Is Anxiety Hereditary?

Many experts believe that anxiety disorders are inherited from a parent or grandparent, and there have been studies done that agree with this assessment. The National Institute of Mental Health has established that genetics do have something to do with anxiety disorders, and it may not be just family anxiety disorders that cause it. Having a family member with any type of mental health disorder can be a risk factor, including those with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or bipolar disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is inherited with 40% of those with GAD having a family member with a mental condition. Those with a parent who has OCD are ten times more likely to have the disorder as well.

Other Causes Or Risk Factors Of Anxiety Disorders In Children

Genetics isn't the only factor in play with anxiety. Studies show that environmental factors influence whether your child will have an anxiety disorder. For example, growing up in an abusive household or with a parent who abuses alcohol or drugs can be a precursor to anxiety disorders in children. This is thought to be a more common cause of anxiety disorders than hereditary causes. Traumatic or scary incidents in a child's life such as the death of a loved one, divorce, bullying, or a natural disaster like a tornado, hurricane, or flood can also be a major influence in causing certain kinds of anxiety disorders like GAD or separation anxiety. Brain chemistry imbalances can also cause anxiety disorders as can traumatic brain injuries or other medical conditions.

Separation Anxiety In Children

Separation anxiety is a type of anxiety in children that causes extreme fear or intense worry when their parent or guardian leaves. For example, when a parent goes back to work or has to leave for some time. Have you ever noticed your child crying when you leave them at the babysitter's or daycare? This is normal and usually goes away after a short time. However, if your child continues to cry and have tantrums or get worse for hours after you leave or if they do it every time you leave them, they may have separation anxiety. It's important to listen to your child. If they are always uneasy being left in a certain place, like a daycare or with a babysitter, take time to understand what your child may have to share about that situation. Here are some signs of separation anxiety in children:

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  • Persistent fear or distress when parents leave
  • Excessive worry about losing a parent or loved one
  • Constant worry about being lost or abandoned
  • Refusal to go outside or leave home for any reason
  • Fear of being left alone
  • Refusing to sleep alone
  • Repeated nightmares about separation
  • Physical symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness

Social Anxiety Disorder In Children

About nine percent of people in the United States experience an anxiety disorder, and over half of them are under 11 years old. Approximately 80% are 20 years of age or younger. Social anxiety disorder is more than just being shy, though; it is an extreme fear of being judged or criticized by others and worrying so much that it affects your daily life. Some of the other signs of social anxiety disorder in children include:

  • Avoiding people or social situations
  • Spending hours or days worrying about what could go wrong at an upcoming social event
  • Isolating yourself, avoiding loved ones and family
  • Constantly berating yourself or putting yourself down
  • Going over situations in your mind thinking of all the things you should have done differently
  • Expecting the worst no matter what the social situation
  • Physical signs like headaches, nausea, shaking or trembling, rapid heartbeat, blushing and sweating
  • Refusing to go to school or work

Test Anxiety

According to studies, test anxiety is on the rise, and it starts in elementary school for many students. With the pressure on children to excel or achieve more as well as peer pressure, hormonal changes, and the massive amount of homework, children are given daily; test anxiety is more common than ever. It is not just experienced in elementary school; it can continue throughout high school and into college for some students. Parents who unwittingly pressure their child into getting all A's or doing better in a certain subject can cause them to stress out about their grades so much that they are destined to fail because nobody can get a perfect grade every time. The fear of failure can cause so much anxiety on the child that they end up getting a bad grade just because they cannot concentrate or are so scared to get the answers wrong that they psych' themselves into failing. Some signs of test anxiety are:

Anxiety In Children Is More Common Than You Think

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  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Negative thinking
  • Comparing yourself to others
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of fear and helplessness when taking a test
  • Physical symptoms like sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, shaking, headache, and nausea

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) In Children

GAD is one of the most common types of anxiety disorder and affects about 18% of the population. Fortunately, it is very treatable, but you must recognize the signs first. Some of the main signs of GAD include:

  • Extreme nervousness
  • Worrying more than necessary about everything
  • Dwelling on things
  • Thinking of worst-case scenarios
  • Feeling threatened even when there is no threat
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Unable to get rid of negative thoughts
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Fatigue
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Restlessness or feeling on edge
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Dizziness or fainting

How To Treat Anxiety In Children

There are many ways to treat anxiety, whether it is social anxiety, GAD, separation anxiety, test anxiety, or any other type of anxiety disorder. The first and most common is cognitive behavior therapy or CBT. This is a sort of talk therapy that helps teach you how to change or challenge their unhealthy thoughts and beliefs so they can improve their emotions and actions. CBT helps by teaching new techniques to deal with stress, identifying emotions, resolving emotional issues, coping with loss or anxiety, and practicing skills to increase positivity.

Treatment Plans For Children

Utilize technology in therapy. Working with the needs of the child, the preferences of the parents, and input from both medical and mental health professionals can help establish a treatment plan that will effectively address anxiety. The internet and electronic devices such as tablets and smartphones, and they tend to have trouble talking about their feelings, online therapy is easier for them. And what is easier, is also more effective. For example, a child with a social anxiety disorder is not going to feel comfortable talking about their feelings and thoughts with a stranger face to face. With email, chatting, instant messaging, and texting, your child will feel much more comfortable and can open up more easily.

Getting Treatment Faster And Easier

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During the early years of life we begin to develop the coping skills, thinking patterns, and behavior habits that will likely be a part of who we are and how we function for life. This means that identifying anxiety problems and engaging in treatment in a timely manner is best for the child involved. To find out about online therapy options for your older child or teen.

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