Nearly 32 percent of youth struggle or have struggled with an impairing anxiety disorder. Though many children can manage their anxiety with help at home and school, some youth struggle enough that they need additional support from a mental health professional. Anxiety can affect their ability to function in the classroom, with peers, during extracurricular activities, and at home. This level of anxiety can make daily functioning difficult at times.
In many cases, anxiety is healthy and keeps us safe and motivated:
- The anxiety I feel about passing a test at school motivates me to study.
- The anxiety I experience when someone asks me to do something dangerous prevents me from going through with it.
The biggest difference between typical anxiety and an anxiety disorder is when the anxiety disrupts someone's ability to function in their daily life. It’s important to know the specific types of anxiety as well as some common anxiety problems for children and adolescents.
The Stages of Anxiety
For children, anxiety is common throughout development and tends to occur in stages or phases.
- During infancy, “stranger danger” is common among infants as they can differentiate faces of familiar and unfamiliar people.
- As toddlers, close bonds with caregivers intensify and separating from them becomes difficult. This usually lasts from about ages 1 to 4 but can last longer for some children.
- For school-aged children, they become more aware of real dangers in the world. Those include:
- Fire drills
- Illnesses, etc.
They focus on these dangers without understanding the difference between preparedness and the reality of how often these issues actually occur.
- Adolescents become increasingly focused on social acceptance, personal success and issues in the larger society, and may experience anxiety about changes in these areas.
All these stages are normal for children to go through, and usually don't influence their daily functioning. If they do, it might signal the need to seek guidance from their pediatrician, school staff or a mental health professional.
Are Some Children More Affected by Anxiety?
Most of the existing research suggests that both our genes and the environment contribute to problems with anxiety. Some children are more likely to feel anxious because of:
- Biological factors (i.e., genes).
- Environmental factors, such as parenting styles or troubling childhood experiences.
- Psychological factors, like temperament, personality style and coping ability.
Anxiety Disorders Commonly Diagnosed in Children
- Separation Anxiety: The fear of being separated from important caregivers (more so for younger children)
- Generalized Anxiety: Worry about issues such as health, natural disasters, peer relationships, sports/academic performance or family problems.
- Specific Phobias: Intense and irrational fear about a particular object (i.e., spiders) or situation (i.e., flying in an airplane)
- Social Anxiety: Intense fear of social or performance-related activities and situations
- Panic Disorder: Experience of at least two unprovoked panic/anxiety attacks. This means they come on suddenly and without a specific reason. Panic attacks include both physical and cognitive symptoms.
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Unwanted and intrusive thoughts and/or a feeling that compels someone to repeatedly complete an action to reduce anxiety.
- Obsessions are constant thoughts or worries about a specific topic, or mental rituals that must be completed to reduce anxiety.
- Compulsions are behaviors that someone is compelled to do to reduce anxiety, like repeated handwashing, checking and rechecking, or arranging items in a particular way
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Symptoms such as intense fear or anxiety, emotional numbing, and avoidance of objects or situations after experiencing a traumatic event. Traumatic events include situations that cause or could cause serious bodily and/or psychological harm to the person or someone close to them.
If you notice any of these signs, talk with your child(ren) about their experience to get a better understanding. You could also consult your pediatrician, someone at their school or a mental health professional.