Childhood Anxiety: What Is It?
Sometimes it’s easy to spot: the outward nervousness, nail biting, jitteriness, moodiness, irritability, and outright refusal to participate in a specific activity, like school. Other times anxiety is not as easy to see, but can still be just as debilitating and lead to further behavioral, as well as physical, problems.
Some of the less distinct signs of anxiety can include frequent stomach aches, headaches, trouble sleeping, and difficulty concentrating. It can be difficult to discern whether these symptoms are due to some kind of illness, something your child ate, an emotional stressor of some kind. There are things parents can do to better understand anxiety, including learning what is normal and what needs their attention.
Separation anxiety usually begins around six to eight months of age. A child that had previously been happy while getting passed around to anyone and everyone, making funny noises and faces, may suddenly become a little weary of the aunt she doesn’t see regularly. This fear of a parent leaving may not subside until she is two to three years old. By then, a child will usually cry for a short period and, with some hesitance, calm down and connect with the new person. The A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia reports that in order for children to overcome this stage of separation anxiety, they must feel safe in their home environment, trust people other than their parents, and trust that their parents will return. Parents will play a significant role in preparing their child to deal effectively with daily stresses.
The Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV, which is the diagnostic authority when referring to mental health disorders, lists the following five main anxiety disorders that can affect children and adolescents.
- Generalized anxiety disorder: The child experiences constant, excessive, and uncontrollable fears or worries about various daily things.
- Separation anxiety disorder: The child becomes overly nervous or anxious when separated from their usual caregiver. This is normal in toddlers, but becomes increasingly less of an issue as the child grows up and he or she gets acclimatized to different environments and people.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: The child has specific obsessions (excessive worries or thoughts) that produce high levels of anxiety, which cause compulsions, or routines and rituals, in an attempt to control or subdue the obsessions and anxious feelings.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Children experience excessive worry, fear, nightmares, sleep problems, flashbacks, and/or depression after experiencing a traumatic or life-threatening event.
- Phobias: The child has excessive, intense, and irrational fears regarding a specific object, person, things, etc. Common phobias include fear of the dark, spiders, small spaces, animals, and blood.
Some Common Causes:
- Physiological/biological factors: Things like lack of sleep, poor diet, excessive caffeine, illness, and physical trauma can also cause serious anxiety and should be ruled out before moving to emotional causes.
- Big changes: These include changes in the home, family, school, etc. Children do not discriminate against different changes in their lives. Parents should prepare children for changes when possible, and recognize the inevitable anxiety that will accompany change.
- Excessive demands: When a child feels they have too much on their plate, or things are required of them that they cannot do, they feel anxious.
- Trauma (or perceived trauma): Trauma does not have to be real to cause anxiety. Both real and imagined traumas can cause emotional distress.
- Procrastination: We all have stress in our lives, but spreading out stress over time helps us to manage that stress. When children, or adults, for that matter, procrastinate, it postpones stress and piles it up for a later date.
Check out “Anxiety and Your Child – Signs, Symptoms, and Solutions” to learn what you can do to help your anxious child. You’ll find professional treatment options, as well as things you can do as a parent.