The first step to getting help is recognizing the problem. If you’re concerned your child or teenager may be suffering from anxiety, learn more about the signs and symptoms to watch for.
Learn about anxiety
Anxiety is a normal part of childhood and adolescence and every child is going to go through some form of anxiety at some point in his or her life. However, children who suffer from anxiety disorders will experience chronic fear, persistent nervousness, and may start to avoid certain places or activities without proper treatment. Children and adolescents with anxiety disorders can experience such severe anxiety that it causes distress and interferes with normal daily functioning.
Some of the most common forms of anxiety that affect both children and adolescents include:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): Children and adolescents with this disorder will experience extreme and unrealistic worry that does not seem to be related to any recent event. It is common for children with GAD to be self-conscious, feel tense, have a strong need for reassurance, and complain about discomforts that do not seem to have any physical basis.
Panic disorder exists when a person experiences short, periodic bursts of extreme panic that occur suddenly and sometimes without any known cause. These attacks tend to reach their peak within a few minutes before very gradually passing. Panic attacks are usually characterized by a sudden shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pains, dizziness, tightening of airways (feeling as though one is choking), trembling, and hot or cold flashes. These experiences are so scary to the child or adolescent that he or she lives in fear of having another attack. A child who experiences panic attacks may not want to go to school or may not want to be away from his or her parents.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) causes a child or adolescent to be stuck in a pattern of repetitive thoughts and behaviors and even though they may recognize these thoughts or behaviors are serving no purpose, they have an extremely hard time stopping. Obsessions include persistent and recurrent thoughts, images, or urges that a person does not want, but cannot get rid of. Compulsions are repetitive mental acts or behaviors that people feel compelled to perform despite not wanting to. These people tend to feel as though they have lost control over how they think and how they behave in regards to certain aspects of their lives.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop in a child or adolescent if they have been exposed to a very stressful event. Children suffering from PTSD may experience recurring thoughts, memories, or dreams about the event that exist so vividly in their minds that they end up feeling as though they are going through the traumatic event all over again.
Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental, emotional, and behavioral problems that occur in childhood and adolescence with as many as 1 in 10 young people having an anxiety disorder. Studies have also estimated that actually one in every eight children suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. Furthermore, the National Institute of Mental Health states that the lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorders affecting 13-18 year olds is around 25%.
Causes and risk factors for anxiety in children and teens
There can be a variety of different causes that lead to the development of anxiety disorders, but it is most commonly agreed upon by professionals in the field that it is a combination of varying factors that work together that causes it to develop. Examples of these different factors can include:
Genetic: It is believed that there is a genetic component in the development of anxiety disorders because they tend to run in families. So children with parents who have anxiety disorders are more likely to develop one themselves. Additionally, genetics play a role in the development of temperament, which affects how people handle stress and therefore possibly effecting whether or not they develop anxiety as a result of their stress.
Physical: Chemical imbalances in the brain have been linked to the development of anxiety disorders. When neurotransmitters are imbalanced, they are not able to send the appropriate amount of serotonin to the areas of the brain that manage one’s feelings of well-being, resulting in the development of anxiety.
Environmental: The environment in which a person spends the majority of his or her time can affect whether or not that person will experience the onset of an anxiety disorder. When people are constantly surrounded by high levels of stress or live in a tense home environment, they are more likely to suffer from anxiety as a result of their negative or stressful surroundings.
- Chronic stress
- Poor living environments
- Family history of anxiety or other mental illnesses
- Exposure to violence
- Experiencing trauma
- History of abuse or neglect
- Being female (women are said to be twice as likely as men to develop an anxiety disorder)
Signs and symptoms of anxiety in children and teens
The signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders will vary based upon the age of the child and the type of anxiety disorder he or she is struggling with. The following are some examples of different signs that may be present in a child or adolescent who is suffering from an anxiety disorder:
Behavioral symptoms in children and adolescents:
- School refusal
- Temper tantrums
- Change in eating patterns
- Regression to infant behaviors
- Uncontrollable crying
- Acting withdrawn
- Avoidance of certain people, places, or situations
- Panic attacks
Physical symptoms in children and adolescents:
- Sleep difficulties
- Frequent urination
- Chronic stomachaches
Cognitive symptoms in children and adolescents:
- Repeated, vivid nightmares
- Repetitive thinking
- Worrying about the future
- Distrust of the world
Psychosocial symptoms in children and adolescents:
- Low self-esteem
- Not caring about school or friendships
- Dramatic mood swings
- Social isolation
- Feelings of loneliness
- Feeling unloved
Effects of anxiety in children and teens
A child or adolescent with an untreated anxiety disorder can be so worried, scared, or uneasy that they are not able to function normally on a daily basis. If continued to be left untreated, anxiety disorders can lead to a number of effects, including:
- Poor performance in school
- Missed school days
- Impaired relationships with friends
- Problems adjusting to work situations
- Anxiety disorders in adulthood
- Substance abuse
Anxiety and co-occurring disorders
Children and adolescents who suffer from anxiety disorders often suffer from other forms of mental disorders as well. The most common disorders that can occur alongside anxiety disorders include:
- Other types of anxiety disorders
- Depressive disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Substance abuse disorders
- Reactive attachment disorder
- Eating disorders
- Adjustment disorder