Child Anxiety Disorders

Most people feel anxious sometimes and anxious feelings are a normal part of life. However, a child or adolescent who feels anxious too often, too much or for too long, may have an emotional disorder called Anxiety Disorder.

Anxiety disorders are mental illnesses that can fill children and adolescents with overwhelming anxiety and fear.  Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problems that occur in children and adolescents. 

1. Separation Anxiety Disorder

Children with separation anxiety disorder have excessive worry or dread related to separation from the home or from primary caregivers, such as parents.  Separation anxieties are typical among infants and toddlers, but not for older children or adolescents. Children with separation anxiety disorder may refuse to attend school or go to bed alone.
2. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Children who have generalized anxiety disorder worry excessively about many things.  For example a child may worry about whether or not they do things well. They may also worry about future disasters. The focus of their anxiety may shift from one concern to another.  Due to their anxiety children may become overly conforming, perfectionist, or unsure of themselves. They tend to seek approval and need constant reassurance about their performance and their worries.  

3. Social Phobia

Social phobia is a severe and persistent fear of social situations.  Young children may express the stress by crying, throwing tantrums, freezing, clinging to familiar adults, or appearing extremely timid in social settings. Older children may have difficulty in school, refuse to attend school, or avoid typical social activities with peers.

4. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Children with obsessive compulsive disorder have intrusive, unwanted, and repetitive thoughts (obsessions).  They may also have an uncontrollable need to perform time consuming repetitive behaviors or rituals (compulsions).  Obsessions make children anxious, and the compulsions temporarily reduce the anxiety.  Common examples of OCD in childhood are repetitive hand washing, counting objects, or checking something.  

5. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

A child with post-traumatic stress disorder experiences dread and fear associated with memories of a past trauma.  Examples of traumatic events include being sexually abused or witnessing violence.  Children with post-traumatic stress disorder may have nightmares and/or reenact the trauma in play.  They may show less interest in activities they once enjoyed or appear detached or numb.  Reminders of the event upset them, and they may be irritable and anxious.

More Information about Anxiety Disorders

Physical symptoms are common when children experience severe anxiety.  Examples  include:

  • dizziness, nausea, and rapid heartbeat
  • headaches
  • restlessness,  fatigue, trouble sleeping
  • poor  concentration.
  • tremors, muscle tension, sweating,
  • stomach aches and diarrhea

There are other health and mental health conditions that have symptoms similar to those of anxiety disorders.  And it is also possible that a child may have an anxiety disorder and another disorder, such as depression or attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder.  Therefore, it is important to have a thorough evaluation by a specialist for accurate diagnosis

What causes Anxiety Disorders?

The precise cause of most mental disorders is not fully understood.  In general, mental disorders result from a combination of genetic and other biological factors, and nurturing and other environmental factors. 
It is not uncommon for there to be a family history of anxiety disorders, particularly in the case of obsessive compulsive disorder. 

How Is Anxiety Disorder Treated?

Anxiety disorder can be treated with therapy, medication or both.  Two forms of therapy that are effective are behavior therapy, which focuses on changing behavior; and cognitive therapy, that teaches children to understand and change their thinking patterns so they can react differently to the situations that cause them anxiety. 

How Can I Get Help?

First, consult your child’s doctor.  Ask for a complete health examination of your child.  Tell the doctor about the behaviors that concern you.  Ask your doctor if further evaluation or treatment by a specialist in child behavioral problems is needed. 

You may also want to contact your child’s school.  Teachers and school counselors may also be able to help. 

Your child may be eligible to receive mental health services from the County Mental Health Plan. The County has a toll free number available 24 hours a day.  They will be able to talk with you in your own language, and answer questions about your child’s behavior.  Their services and phone numbers are listed in the county government pages of your local phone book.

Where Can I Get More Information?

National Mental Health Association
(800) 969-6642

Anxiety Disorders Association of America
(240) 485-1001

National Institute of Mental Health
(888) 826-9438