Anxiety is a mental health problem that has gotten more attention in the last few years, but it is still a condition that is often misunderstood. Anxiety disorders in children, especially, differ from the norm, because the symptoms children display may not align with what we typically believe anxiety looks like.
Unfortunately, signs of anxiety often manifest in more physical ways and can be confused with issues that affect your kid's attention span or lead to learning disabilities. These misdiagnoses can lead to improper treatment as your child remains unable to solve their anxiety problem.
What causes anxiety in children?
Anxiety is a debilitating disorder that can severely impede on one’s ability to perform everyday activities or achieve mental relaxation. Anxiety causes extreme fear or worry and can impact sleep, mood, concentration, social function and so much more.
In children, anxiety can be even worse, because young people don’t always have the ability to identify and cope with their feelings. This also makes it more difficult to identify and treat.
There are multiple types of anxiety that can affect children, including generalized anxiety, where the child will develop daily worries that overcome their ability to focus or function, or separation anxiety, where the child fears being away from their parent or caretaker for even short periods of time. Children may also develop social anxiety, which is characterized by the fear of judgement or ridicule from others during social interactions and can lead to the avoidance of others or public attention.
Anxiety can trigger the release of hormones in the brain that stimulate a fight or flight response at inappropriate times. This causes the variety of physical and mental symptoms your child may experience.
Many children develop anxiety after experiencing a frightening or traumatic event. While adults may not find these events traumatic, even minor instances can scare children into developing feelings of anxiety over very specific circumstances. Once the frightening or traumatic event is over, the child may begin to have obsessive thoughts about the incident.
Children can also develop anxiety because of genetics or brain chemistry; children with parents who have anxiety disorders are more likely to develop anxiety. Genetics can also affect the way the brain processes and releases chemicals. When imbalanced, these chemicals can cause anxiety.
Identifying anxiety symptoms in children
Many of the typical symptoms of anxiety in children are normal, and most children will exhibit them on occasion. This can make anxiety quite difficult to identify, especially if you think your child will outgrow the behavior or if they are unable to express precisely how they feel.
However, when anxiety is at play, these behaviors or signs become much more common, persistent and intense.
Common symptoms can include:
- Agitation or irritability
- Restlessness and fidgeting
- Inability to focus
- Poor academic performance
- Tantrums and crying, often out of nowhere
- Difficulty focusing on or meltdowns about homework
- Difficulty transitioning between school, afterschool activities and home
- Unwillingness to go to school
- Excessive clinginess
- Avoiding social situations
- Expressing persistent concern over specific situations or imagining the worst
- Increasing insistence on high performance in school or sports
- Complaints of a fast heartbeat/racing heart
- Panic attacks (shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, dizziness and/or nausea)
- Inability to sleep or complaining of poor sleep
- Tensing muscles constantly
- Physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches
Additionally, some children will develop behaviors similar to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as a way to cope with their anxiety, especially when they lack an alternative outlet or relief. These behaviors may help the child feel more in control of their day-to-day life by implementing strict routines or rituals.
Children with anxiety may also be increasingly resistant to punishment or disciplinary actions that used to be effective for them. This typically leaves parents frustrated, overwhelmed or unable to cope with their child’s newfound behavior.
Why proper diagnosis and treatment are critical
Because many symptoms of child anxiety manifest in ways similar to other conditions like ADD, it’s important to note the specific symptoms your child is experiencing, their frequency and other information about their general state or behavior.
You can discuss these symptoms with your child’s primary care physician, who may be able to refer you to a specialist or behavioral psychologist for a full diagnosis. During an appointment, the psychologist or therapist will talk to your child and have them answer questions to get a better understanding of their symptoms, their thought processes and what, specifically, they are fearful of.
Once a diagnosis has been reached, your child’s therapist will create a treatment plan that may include cognitive behavioral therapy (or talk therapy), coping skills, anxiety relief supplements or potentially medication.
If you believe your child’s symptoms align with those of anxiety, don’t hesitate to discuss your concerns with a professional. Prompt diagnosis can help your child get treatment faster and lead to a happier, healthier life for your child and the rest of the family.