Anxiety in Children

I’d like you to take a minute to think of something that makes you anxious.  Public speaking? A creepy-crawly spider on the wall? Confronting a co-worker or spouse? What happens to you when you think of this scene? Elevated heart rate? Sickness in your stomach? Pressure in your chest and maybe heavy breathing? As an adult you have the ability to understand that an upcoming public speaking event may make you anxious.  You understand the symptoms associated with it, and may even have the skills to manage your anxiety and give a killer performance. 

Children with anxiety do not yet have these skills. An anxious child’s behavior may be seen as unacceptable and disruptive to others.  They may be labeled as “difficult”, “unruly”, “obnoxious”, or “too sensitive”.  In fact, they very well may be difficult to manage on a regular basis.  Let’s talk a little more about anxiety.

Parent comforts scared and anxious child on the beach.

What does anxiety look like in Children?

All children will be anxious at some point. Have you ever heard of separation anxiety or stranger anxiety? These two types of anxieties are present at typical growth development milestones.  Many times these types of anxiety are referred to as a “phase”.  For example, your child will temporarily experience crying when you leave them.  Then after a few weeks you will notice the crying will subside.  For children with anxiety disorders these symptoms last longer than a few weeks and will need extra care to help relieve their anxious feelings. .  For children, you most notice anxiety becoming a problem when they begin avoiding tasks or situations.  Here are some avoidance behaviors of a child experiencing anxiety:

  • Not wanting to eat in cafeteria

  • Not wanting to go to swimming lessons because of fear of putting face underwater

  • Not wanting to go to preschool or school because a parent is not there

  • Not wanting to raise hand in class or read out loud

  • Not wanting to sleep in your own bedroom

  • Not attending age-appropriate activities unless a parent is there.

  • Not wanting to be away from home unless they have a cell phone.

  • Not going out unless they have a complete change of clothes with them, in case they are sick.

Not All Anxiety is Bad

Anxiety is a very normal feeling that we all experience.  Many times anxiety is helpful and even keeps us safe.  You may experience anxiety when crossing the street. Being cautious before crossing may prevent you from being hit by a car.  Anxiety can also be motivating.  If you are anxious before a presentation at work or a big test coming up, anxiety can drive you to practice more frequently or study harder for the exam. 

When does Anxiety become a problem?

While anxiety can be motivating and protect us from danger, there comes a point when anxiety begins to interfere with every day life.  For children, it is when you begin to notice “the phase” not lifting.  For example:

  • It is healthy for a young child to be fearful and hesitant around strangers, but it is not healthy for your child to be fearful of “safe adults” (grandparents, teachers, babysitters) after a period of transition. 

  • It is normal for a child to be nervous the first day of school, but it is not healthy for a child to cry every day at school after the parent leaves. 

  • It is normal for your child to be nervous before a big test, but it is unhealthy for your child to throw up or want to call out sick the day of the test.

What can you do to help your child?

Anxiety in children is very treatable and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the number one treatment method, with overwhelming success.  CBT is a type of talk therapy designed to identify sources of anxiety, and create concrete usable solutions to manage the anxiety symptoms.  Teaching the child the concept FEAR, which stands for 1) feeling frightened 2) expecting bad things 3) attitude or actions that will help 4) results and rewards for effective coping. This process helps your child to challenge their negative thoughts (instead of allowing them to accept the belief as truth) and creates long lasting skill building. These skills allow children to safely face their fears, and break down their fear into smaller more manageable steps.  Over time, they will be able to use the skills they’ve learned in more broad situations.  Eventually these skills will help them adapt to an anxiety-provoking scenario more quickly. 

Hope Therapy Center specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and the treatment of anxiety in children/young adults.  Contact us today to schedule your first session, and begin the process of helping your child cope with anxiety. 

Photo by Xavier Mouton