All children have worries and fears from time to time. Whether it's the monster in the closet, the big test at the end of the week, or making the cut for the soccer team, kids have things that make them anxious, just like adults.
But sometimes anxiety in children crosses the line from normal everyday worries to a disorder that gets in the way of the things they need to do. It can even keep them from enjoying life as they should.
How can you tell if your child's anxieties might be more than just passing worries and fears? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Are they expressing worry or showing anxiety on most days, for weeks at a time?
- Do they have trouble sleeping at night? If you aren't sure (they might not tell you), do you notice that they seem unusually sleepy or tired during the day?
- Are they having trouble concentrating?
- Do they seem unusually irritable or easy to upset?
There are several different types of anxiety disorders that can affect children. The most common include:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Remember the old Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy asks Charlie Brown if he has "pantophobia?" When they explain that pantophobia is "the fear of everything," Charlie Brown yells, "That's it!"
GAD is a bit like Charlie Brown's pantophobia. Children with GAD worry excessively about lots of things: school, their own safety and health, the health of family members and friends, money, and their family's security. The list can go on and on. A child with GAD may always imagine the worst possible thing that could happen.
Kids with GAD may experience physical symptoms because of these worries, like headaches and stomachaches. Your child may also isolate themselves, avoiding school and friends because they are so overwhelmed by their worries.
A panic attack is a sudden, intense episode of anxiety with no apparent outside cause. Your child's heart pounds, and they may feel short of breath. Your child may tremble or feel dizzy or numb. (If your child is hyperventilating, try to have them breathe slowly with nice deep breaths. Breathing in a brown paper bag can help.).
When your child has had two or more of these episodes, and is preoccupied with worries about them happening again, it is considered panic disorder.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
All children have some level of separation anxiety. It's a normal phase of development in babies and toddlers. Even older children may get clingy with their parents or caregivers occasionally, especially in new settings.
But older children who get unusually upset when leaving a parent or someone else close to them, who have trouble calming down after saying goodbye, or who get extremely homesick and upset when away from home at school, camp, or play dates, may have separation anxiety disorder.
A child with social phobia feels severe anxiety and self-consciousness in normal, everyday, social situations. This is more than just shyness.
The socially anxious child is terrified that they will embarrass themselves when talking with classmates, answering a question in class, or doing other normal activities that involve interacting with others.
This fear can keep your child from participating in school and activities. Some children may even find themselves unable to talk at all in some situations.
What Can You Do?
Mental health professionals today understand much more about childhood anxiety disorders than in the past. No matter what your child's anxiety disorder is, you should be able to find a professional therapist who can help. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has many resources, including self-help publications, support groups, treatment guides, and a therapist search tool.
You can also help your child at home by being supportive and understanding.
- If your child becomes upset and anxious, stay calm as you talk to them through it.
- Don't punish your child for things like mistakes on schoolwork or lack of progress.
- "Catch" them doing well: Praise even small accomplishments, and be specific.
- Plan for transitions. If your child's anxiety means going to school in the morning is very stressful, allow plenty of extra time.
- While respecting your child's privacy, do give their teachers and coaches information they need to help them understand what's going on.
Above all, be available to listen when your child wants to talk to you about their anxiety. Kids with anxiety disorders often try to hide their fears because they think you won't understand. So let your child know you're ready to listen whenever they're ready to talk.