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Learn More About Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents

As a parent, it’s never easy to think about your child struggling with anxiety. We want nothing more than to see our children happy and thriving. But, multiple studies have shown that more kids are dealing with it than ever before. In fact, children can be more susceptible to anxiety and depression than adults, because they don’t fully know how to handle or process it. And, anxiety disorders can present significant challenges to a child's well-being and development. 

That doesn’t mean there is a “one-size-fits-all” type of anxiety for children. There are several different types of childhood anxiety that kids of all ages can struggle with. 

Knowing those types can make them easier to recognize. When you understand the most common symptoms, you can get your child the help they need sooner rather than later. 

Let’s look at the most common types of anxiety in children and how you can spot them. 


Understanding Anxiety Disorders:

 Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions affecting children and adolescents. These disorders involve excessive worry, fear, or apprehension that is disproportionate to the actual threat or situation.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), outlines several types of anxiety disorders, including:

  1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): The most commonly diagnosed type of anxiety is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). It can happen at any age, and the symptoms are often noticeable. It is characterized by persistent and excessive worry about various aspects of life, such as school performance, relationships, and future events. And kids can have symptoms similar to panic disorder. When a child is struggling with GAD, they might exhibit symptoms like excessive worry or irrational fears. In school, they may have trouble concentrating or staying focused. It’s not that they’re worried or focused on one thing in particular. Rather, they’ll experience random “triggers” or worrisome thoughts about different things, such as a test at school or a doctor’s appointment that ignites their irrational fears. 
  2. Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD): Involves an intense fear of social situations or performance situations where the child may be exposed to scrutiny or judgment by others.
  3. Separation Anxiety Disorder: Commonly observed in younger children, separation anxiety disorder involves excessive fear or anxiety about being separated from caregivers or loved ones. Most children want to spend as much time as possible with their parents. But, if your child experiences irrational fear whenever you leave, they could be dealing with separation anxiety. You’ve probably heard of separation anxiety disorder when it comes to pets. But, it can be just as prominent in children. They might refuse to sleep alone or worry about being apart from you. They might not even want to go to school or out with friends because they worry about what might happen when you’re apart. 
  4. Specific Phobias: Involves intense fear or avoidance of specific objects, situations, or activities, such as heights, animals, or medical procedures. When your child has OCD, they might become hyper-fixated and obsessed with one thing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re scared of that particular thing. Phobias are different. They are very specific fears directed at particular things or situations. Some of the most common phobias for children include animals, enclosed spaces, spiders, flying, and the dark. It’s important to know that there’s a difference between a child “being scared” of something and having an actual phobia. Many kids are scared of the dark. If your child has a phobia, they’ll experience severe anxiety when exposed to that particular thing.
  5. Panic Disorder: Characterized by recurrent panic attacks, which are sudden and intense episodes of fear or discomfort accompanied by physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, sweating, and shortness of breath. Your child might feel like they’re losing control or have an overwhelming sense of fear and hopelessness. It’s not uncommon for physical symptoms to go along with panic disorder including: 
    • Pounding heart
    • Sweating
    • Trembling/shaking
    • Hot flashes
    • Chills
    • Shortness of breath
  6. Selective Mutism: It’s not uncommon for children to be shy or nervous about speaking with others. But, when those issues go “too far,” your child might be dealing with selective mutism. Selective mutism isn’t caused by a communication disorder. Rather, it’s a type of anxiety that can cause your child to “freeze up” as a defense mechanism to make themselves feel more comfortable.


Diagnostic Criteria According to the DSM-5:

The DSM-5 provides specific criteria for diagnosing each type of anxiety disorder. To receive a diagnosis, a child must meet the following criteria:

  1. Experiencing symptoms of anxiety that significantly interfere with daily functioning or cause distress.
  2. Symptoms must persist for a specified period, typically six months or more.
  3. Symptoms cannot be better explained by another medical condition or substance use.


Potential Causes of Anxiety Disorders in Children:

Anxiety disorders can arise from a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Some potential causes and risk factors include:

  1. Family History: Children with a family history of anxiety disorders or other mental health conditions may be at a higher risk.
  2. Brain Chemistry: Imbalances in neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, may contribute to the development of anxiety disorders.
  3. Environmental Stressors: Stressful life events, trauma, or significant life changes, such as moving to a new school or family conflict, can trigger or exacerbate anxiety symptoms.
  4. Temperamental Factors: Children who are naturally more shy, sensitive, or prone to negative thinking may be more susceptible to developing anxiety disorders.


Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders in Children:

Recognizing the signs of anxiety disorders in children is crucial for early intervention and support. Common signs and symptoms may include:

  1. Excessive worry or fear about specific situations, events, or activities.
  2. Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, or fatigue.
  3. Avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations or activities.
  4. Difficulty concentrating, restlessness, or irritability.
  5. Changes in sleep patterns, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep.
  6. Frequent seeking of reassurance from caregivers or reluctance to be separated from them.


Support and Intervention Strategies:

If you suspect that your child may be struggling with an anxiety disorder, it's essential to seek professional help and provide support. Here are some strategies for supporting children with anxiety:

  1. Validate Their Feelings: Acknowledge your child's feelings of anxiety and reassure them that it's okay to feel scared or worried.
  2. Encourage Open Communication: Create a safe and supportive environment where your child feels comfortable expressing their thoughts and emotions.
  3. Teach Coping Skills: Teach your child relaxation techniques, deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, and positive self-talk to help them manage their anxiety.
  4. Gradual Exposure: Gradually expose your child to anxiety-provoking situations or stimuli in a controlled and supportive manner, helping them build confidence and resilience.
  5. Establish Routines: Establish consistent routines and schedules to provide a sense of predictability and stability for your child.
  6. Seek Professional Help: Consult a mental health professional, such as a pediatrician, psychologist, or psychiatrist, for a comprehensive evaluation and treatment recommendations.
  7. Consider Therapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and other evidence-based therapies can be highly effective in treating anxiety disorders in children.


Anxiety disorders can have a significant impact on a child's well-being and functioning, but with the right support and intervention, children can learn to manage their anxiety and lead fulfilling lives. By understanding the different types of anxiety disorders, recognizing the signs and symptoms, and implementing supportive strategies, parents can play a crucial role in helping their children overcome anxiety. Remember, you're not alone on this journey, and there are resources and professionals available to support you and your child every step of the way.

There are many child therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists who can help you and your child.  Search our directory to find one near you.