Have you ever asked the question, "why does my child worry so much?". Or wondered why your child does not jump into new activities in the same way other children seem to?
All children will experience different levels of fear throughout their lives. Many children experience night terrors, separation difficulties or fears of monsters or darkness as typical development occurs. However, when fears begin to take over and your child is no longer able to experience other joys in life, an anxiety disorder could be occurring.
The good news is that anxiety it treatable and at MCFT, we specialize in treating anxiety in children and adolescents.
What are anxiety disorders?
Some main symptoms that characterize anxiety disorders are:
- Tantruming/ defiant behaviors surrounding anxiety provoking stimulus
- Clinginess to a caregiver when exposed to new situations
- Somatic symptoms- including muscle tension, stomache aches, headaches, etc.
- Panic attacks- increased heart rate, trouble breathing, feeling like they are going to die
Types of Anxiety Disorders in Children:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder:
GAD is diagnosed when a person finds it difficult to control worry on more days than not for at least six months and has three or more symptoms.
If your child has generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, he or she will worry excessively about a variety of things such as grades, family issues, relationships with peers, and performance in sports.
Children with GAD tend to be very hard on themselves and strive for perfection. They may also seek constant approval or reassurance from others.
The disorder comes on gradually and can begin across the life cycle, though the risk is highest between childhood and middle age. Although the exact cause of GAD is unknown, there is evidence that biological factors, family background, and life experiences, particularly stressful ones, play a role.
When their anxiety level is mild, people with GAD can function socially and be gainfully employed. Although they may avoid some situations because they have the disorder, some people can have difficulty carrying out the simplest daily activities when their anxiety is severe.
Panic disorder is diagnosed if your child suffers at least two unexpected panic or anxiety attacks—which means they come on suddenly and for no reason—followed by at least one month of concern over having another attack, losing control, or "going crazy."
Separation Anxiety Disorder:
There are normal periods of separation anxiety in children as their brains develop and their understanding of themselves in relation to their attachment figures develop. Click here for a stage-by-stage guide to normal periods of separation anxiety.
However, in 4% of children, this anxiety is intense, excessive, and begins to create problems in daily functioning. Children most commonly diagnosed with Separation Anxiety Disorder are between the ages of 7-9.
When separation anxiety disorder occurs, a child experiences excessive anxiety away from home or when separated from parents or caregivers. Extreme homesickness and feelings of misery at not being with loved ones are common.
Other symptoms include refusing to go to school, camp, or a sleepover, and demanding that someone stay with them at bedtime. Children with separation anxiety commonly worry about bad things happening to their parents or caregivers or may have a vague sense of something terrible occurring while they are apart.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, is characterized by an intense fear of social and performance situations and activities such as being called on in class or starting a conversation with a peer. Learn more about social anxiety disorder.
This can significantly impair your child’s school performance and attendance, as well as his or her ability to socialize with peers and develop and maintain relationships.
Children who refuse to speak in situations where talking is expected or necessary, to the extent that their refusal interferes with school and making friends, may suffer from selective mutism.
Children suffering from selective mutism may stand motionless and expressionless, turn their heads, chew or twirl hair, avoid eye contact, or withdraw into a corner to avoid talking.
These children can be very talkative and display normal behaviors at home or in another place where they feel comfortable. Parents are sometimes surprised to learn from a teacher that their child refuses to speak at school.
The average age of diagnosis is around 5 years old, or around the time a child enters school.
A specific phobia is the intense, irrational fear of a specific object, such as a dog, or a situation, such as flying. Common childhood phobias include animals, storms, heights, water, blood, the dark, and medical procedures.
Children will avoid situations or things that they fear, or endure them with anxious feelings, which can manifest as crying, tantrums, clinging, avoidance, headaches, and stomachaches. Unlike adults, they do not usually recognize that their fear is irrational.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:
Click here to see more about OCD symptoms and treatment in children.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:
Click here to see more about PTSD symptoms and treatment in children.
What causes anxiety disorders?
Research has found many contributing factors related to anxiety. A child can be born with an anxious temperament. Parents can have anxiety and model this anxiety with their children even when being careful not to overtly express this anxiety. Children exposed to traumatic events or stressful environments are more prone to anxiety as well. Children with higher IQ's are at risk for more anxiety as well.
What is the typical approach to treating anxiety disorders?
At MCFT, we start with treating anxiety by conducting a thorough assessment of the cause, duration and intensity of anxiety symptoms. We will then recommend a course of treatment based on this assessment.
Here is a list of the services we provide for the treatment of anxiety:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (through play for younger children)
- Play Therapy
- Parent-Child Interaction Therapy
- Family Therapy
- EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing)
- Trauma Focused CBT ( for anxiety related to trauma)
** For more on the treatment of anxiety related to trauma, click here.