Recognizing Anxiety Disorders in Children

Recognizing Anxiety Disorders in ChildrenThe most common psychological conditions in the United States are anxiety disorders. Contrary to popular belief, these conditions are not limited to the adult population; rather they can affect people of all ages. Anxiety disorders in children often go undiagnosed and untreated because parents do not recognize the signs. Children with untreated anxiety disorders tend to experience poor academic performance, social impairment and low self-esteem/self-confidence. These children also have a higher risk of experimenting with drugs and alcohol and engaging in reckless and impulsive behaviors.

Although anxiety disorders are often triggered by stressful events such as: changing schools, divorce, remarriage, a new addition in the family, a change in health status, a death in the family or relocation to another state, they can arise without a specific cause. Anxiety disorders are broken into eight different subsets: generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), separation anxiety disorder, specific phobias, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, selective mutism, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).  Treatment typically consists of medication, lifestyle changes and psychotherapy. If you are wondering how to recognize anxiety disorder in children, you have come to the right place. This article will help you spot an anxiety disorder a mile away.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety encompasses a wide range of psychological disorders that are characterized by overwhelming feelings of panic, worry, nervousness, apprehension or fear. These disorders affect the way a child thinks and behaves. They can also cause a variety of emotional and physical symptoms such as: headaches, severe fatigue, gastrointestinal distress (upset stomach, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting), mood swings, irritability, anger, etc.

It is important to note that in some cases, anxiety can actually be a good thing. In other words, it can alert a child to a dangerous situation. For instance, a teenager gets invited to a party where drugs and alcohol may be present. The teenager has a bad feeling about the party, but is unsure how to decline the invitation. As time draws closer to the party time, she begins to experience severe anxiety. The teenager starts to feel lightheaded, unusually tired and sick to her stomach so she decides to stay home. She later finds out that there was alcohol and drugs at the party and that several people were arrested. Anxiety prevented the teenager from going to a potentially dangerous party.

It is normal to experience anxiety from time to time, but when the anxiety attacks become chronic or interfere with daily functioning, it may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders in children are not only precipitated by stress, they often accompany depression. A child may experience anxiety before reciting a poem in front of the class, taking an exam, presenting an idea to others, interviewing for a position, participating in a sport, voicing an opinion or performing a dance, song or poem in front of an audience. These feelings are normal. It only becomes a problem when it affects the child’s ability to live a “normal” life. If  children’s anxiety prevents them from getting up in the mornings or sleeping well at night, or there is a sudden change in their appetite, mood or academic performance, it may be time to get them evaluated by a licensed mental health professional (child psychologist, child counselor, child therapist or child social worker).

How Are Anxiety Disorders in Children Recognized?

Anxiety disorders in children are normally recognized through signs and symptoms. For instance :

Children with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) tend to want to please others so they constantly worry and obsess over friendships and academic performance. The excessive worrying triggers recurrent anxiety attacks. These children are not only perfectionist; they also determine their self-worth by how many friends they have.

Separation anxiety disorder is especially common in young children. In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (2014), approximately 4% of children, ages 7 to 9 years old, suffer from separation anxiety disorder. These children are highly enmeshed with their parents, which causes them to experience anxiety whenever they are separated from them. Children with this anxiety disorder often shun slumber parties or overnight trips that do not involve their parents.

Children with specific phobias tend to experience anxiety attacks whenever they are confronted with specific stimuli such as: the noise and/or flashing lights of thunderstorms, the sound of running water, heights like a staring down from a skyscraper or riding on a roller coaster, animals such as: snakes, bugs, rats or enclosed spaces such as: an elevator or closet. This type of phobia can negatively affect the children’s ability to function, especially if they refuse to do something because of their intense fear.

Although rare, children can also suffer from a panic disorder. These children tend to experience overwhelming feelings of fear, dread and doom that they just cannot shake. These children also tend to experience the most emotional and physical symptoms such as: lightheadedness, trembles, dizziness, headaches, chest pains, accelerated heart rate, increased blood pressure, hot flashes, chills,  irritability, depression, unpredictable mood swings, anger, rage, etc. The symptoms are usually triggered by a stressful situation, but not always. Moreover, the symptoms usually arise suddenly.

Children with a social anxiety disorder may be deathly afraid to talk to other people or perform in front of an audience. In other words, these children become paralyzed in social situations. They typically experience a variety of physical symptoms during the anxiety attacks such as: excessive perspiration (sweaty palms and underarms), stomach or muscle cramps, dizziness, headaches, etc.

Although rarely diagnosed, some school-age children may suffer from selective mutism. These children only speak at selected times. In other words, they fear speaking in public or around people they do not know. This fear causes them to have anxiety attacks any time they are faced with an uncomfortable and/or unfamiliar situation. This anxiety disorder typically arises in children between the ages 4 and 8 years old, but it can occur at any age. It is important to note that children with selective mutism may speak freely in the comfort of their home and around their friends and family, but refuse to speak at school. These children may become withdrawn, distant or emotionless during an anxiety attack.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by obsessive thoughts (unwanted, disturbing or upsetting thoughts that will not go away) and routines and rituals (repeating the same acts over and over again). These children, typically around the age of 10 years old, tend to use these “acts” as a way to relieve or prevent anxiety attacks. It is important to note that males tend to develop OCD before puberty, while females tend to develop the disorder during their teenage years. In rare cases, OCD can be diagnosed in children as young as 2 years old.

Lastly, in rare cases, children can be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). This disorder normally occurs in children who have witnessed as traumatic event such as: domestic violence, child abuse, a horrific accident, acts of violence outside of the home, etc. These children may experience an anxiety attack when they remember the traumatic event, they are forced to revisit the site of the event or hear stories about the event. During an anxiety attack, children with PTSD may become irritable, angry, hostile, withdrawn and fearful. It is important to note that not all children, who experience a trauma, develop PTSD; in fact most children recover from the experience without significant issues. Children with a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness, experience repeated episodes of child abuse or violence within the home and those who do not have a strong support system face the highest risk of developing PTSD.

How Are Anxiety Disorders in Children Treated?

Anxiety disorders in children are treated with a combination of psychotherapy (individual, child and family counseling/therapy), medications (prescribed anti-anxiety drugs) and lifestyle changes (a healthier diet, yoga, biofeedback, meditation and exercise). Treatment typically depends on the type of anxiety disorder the child has been diagnosed with, however many child psychologists, therapists and counselors use a cognitive–behavioral approach when treating children with anxiety disorders.

This psychological approach helps children connect their thoughts to their behaviors. It also teaches them better ways to cope with stressful and difficult situations so that they do not experience an anxiety attack. Children who exhibit signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder should be examined by a trained mental health professional who can teach them how to manage yr improve their condition.


Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2014). Childhood anxiety disorders.      Retrieved from          disorders

Medical News Today. (2014). What is anxiety? Retrieved  from

National Institute of Mental Health. (2014). What is anxiety disorder?

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