Don’t ignore childhood anxiety. Get treatment early so your kid can be a kid.
Maybe they’re scared of being separated from their mom, fearful of the dark, or worried about their performance in school. While some childhood fears and anxieties are normal and short-lived, others become persistent, cause great distress, and interfere with quality of life. When parents assume their child’s anxiety is just a phase the child will outgrow, they’re making a big mistake. Unless treated, anxiety disorders can continue the rest of a child’s life. So getting help fast is essential to your child’s health and well-being.
Here’s how parents can know when their child’s anxiety isn’t normal and how to get help.
Anxiety is a normal human response to a perceived threat. The body kicks into its natural fight-or-flight response, adrenaline starts pumping, and the mind and body are prepared for action. At the same time, heart rate increases, sweat breaks out, and the anxious kid will feel shaky or short of breath. When the “danger” passes, the body calms down.
What’s Normal and What’s Not?
Everyone at some point in life experiences a certain level of anxiety. Depending on the situation and the person, the anxiety may be merely unsettled feelings or extreme panic. The stress can either motivate you to action or paralyze you.
It’s when anxiety becomes greater than the actual reality (a fear of mom never picking you up from school even though she’s never forgotten you) and when the anxiety starts to control your quality of life and happiness (refusing to go to school for fear mom won’t pick you up) that it turns into a recognized mental disorder.
A child with an anxiety disorder worries excessively every day for weeks; has trouble sleeping and concentrating; and is tired, restless, and irritable during the day. Schoolwork and family life may suffer and the child may complain of physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and fatigue.
Encouragement and reassurance from parents and caretakers doesn’t seem to help.
Common Childhood Disorders
Six of the most common types of anxiety disorders kids face include generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorders, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
A child with generalized anxiety disorder worries perpetually about all kinds of things including school, sports, health, safety, or the future—often to the point of making him- or herself sick.
Social phobia is the fear of speaking in front of others or being in social situations.
Panic attacks cause a pounding heart, dizziness, tingling, and shortness of breath and can affect kids sometimes for no clear reason.
A child with an obsessive-compulsive disorder thinks continually about something and does repetitive behaviors to relieve the anxiety.
Phobias are irrational fears about relatively harmless things like flying in airplanes, spiders, or heights.
Post-traumatic stress disorder occurs after a past traumatic experience. Nightmares, flashbacks, and fears continue even when the child is safe and sound.
The exact cause of childhood anxiety disorders is unknown, but genetics, life stress, learned behaviors, an easily triggered flight or flight response, and brain chemistry all play a role. This means a child with an overly anxious parent or a child who experiences trauma, abuse, or extreme stress early in life is more likely to be anxious.
There’s Help and Hope
Children with anxiety disorders need their parents to remain understanding, patient, supportive, and nonjudgmental. With the right therapy, a child can learn to cope with anxiety and even overcome it to lead a healthy and happy life.
Ask your child’s pediatrician for a referral to a mental health professional with training and experience treating your child’s specific anxiety disorder. Most counselors will incorporate cognitive-behavior therapy as part of their treatment.
With this type of therapy, kids learn new ways of thinking, acting, coping, and relaxing in regard to their anxiety triggers. In some cases, medication may be recommended. Check with your insurance as counseling sessions and medication may be covered.