Even before 2020, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested that 1 in 5 children were living with some type of mental health condition. Worse, only about 20% of them were receiving any sort of professional care.
Recognizing generalized anxiety disorder in children can be challenging. This in large part results from the fact that children don’t always understand how to express their feelings and emotions. As a result, childhood anxiety symptoms can easily (and unfortunately often) go unchecked or simply be misinterpreted altogether.
Especially given the events we’ve all experienced over the last two years — a global pandemic, mask-wearing, vaccinations, remote learning, and unpredictable routines — already-high anxiety levels have almost certainly been exacerbated. Keep in mind, all those traditional roots of anxiety (abuse, domestic violence, neglect, food insecurity, starting school, making new friends, etc.) are all still in full effect, too.
If you think your young child is suffering from an anxiety disorder, you can help them. Keep reading for information about how to treat anxiety in children under 10 years of age through adolescence, how to diagnose anxiety, what causes it, and how you can help manage the symptoms. You’ll also learn how to determine if your child needs therapy for anxiety, or if the situation can be handled with help at home.
Signs of Anxiety in Children
Recognizing an anxiety disorder in children can be difficult since various other mental health conditions share some of the same symptoms as anxiety might. However, there are a few common signs that might help you identify it.
Have you recently noticed that your child is:
- Constantly feeling negative and unworthy of acceptance
- Running to the bathroom repetitively
- Showing an inability to concentrate
- Having tummy issues
- Dealing with poor sleeping habits
- Fidgety and tense
- Quick to anger
- Easily startled
- Developing a poor appetite
- Complaining of headaches
- Crying more than normal
Child anxiety may also lead to restlessness, rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, sweating, muscle tension, and nausea.
How anxiety differs in children vs. teens or adults
Most adolescents and adults have learned to recognize and deal with their emotions much better than most children can. When a teenager shows symptoms of anxiety, we often immediately know that something is amiss. Thus, we can take action to improve the situation or seek help for them.
A young child doesn’t yet have the training or life experience to recognize, analyze, and manage emotional uprises — let alone clearly communicate what they’re feeling. They might just feel “stuck” with their symptoms, unable to understand why they feel the way they do. Their cognitive functioning is not fully developed yet, and they likely have difficulty processing the world as an adult can.
What Causes Anxiety in Children?
In order to treat anxiety, we must understand what causes anxiety in children. Anxiety in children can result from several biological, psychological, and environmental factors, including:
- How the brain is wired
- Having an anxious parent or a troubling home life
- Early trauma or harsh experiences
- Temperament or lack of coping skills
Certain anxiety conditions are more prevalent in children. For example, a child may experience separation anxiety when it’s time for them to be away from their parent. Separation anxiety disorder can occur when they go to school, have a babysitter or other caregiver, sleep over at a friend’s house, or go away to camp.
Your child might experience social anxiety and have problems facing situations like going to school or spending time with peers. They may have an intense fear of being judged negatively or worry about being humiliated by their peers and others.
Children can also develop a specific type of phobia that causes their anxiety symptoms. Intense fear and other anxiety symptoms can result instantly from, say, seeing an insect, hearing thunder, fear of being alone, or even being worried about illness. There are some differences between fear vs anxiety though, so it is important to be aware of that.
How to Help a Child with Anxiety
Depending on a child’s age, developmental stage, and if they have severe anxiety, it might be possible to work together to improve their symptoms without seeking the help of a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist.
Examine some of the methods below that have been successful in treating child anxiety. Most of them you can try at home with your child.
Mindfulness meditation is a powerful emotion-taming technique that can be very successful for people of all ages. Young children are typically quite receptive to meditation with the proper instruction. We already know the numerous benefits associated with meditating, and it’s never too early (or late) to learn and implement a meditation practice into daily life. This is true even for children.
Intentional (but protective) exposure
Practicing gradual exposure can help prepare your child for things that might make them anxious. It can also begin to rewire the brain and allow your child to understand that anxious moments and situations pass. It’s OK to feel emotions, analyze them, and keep them from getting out of control.
For instance, your child might get anxious about being addressed publicly. In these social situations, they may hide their face and squirm when spoken to. You could act by planning a trip to their favorite restaurant, where they serve food they like and have something to look forward to.
Coach your child ahead of time about how they’re going to give their own dinner order, and then, maybe later, order a dessert. The point is to slowly get them used to doing what causes this childhood anxiety in a safe, nonthreatening manner.
Another example might be if your child has intense anxiety about the start school. You could go together and walk around the school on a weekend before school starts.
“We can encourage parents that have children with anxiety to normalize it, either create a safe place to vent themselves, or find a professional who can create that safe place to vent for them. Regular routines, structure, and consistency help children to gain some traction along their journey to cope with anxiety in healthy ways.”Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice PsyD., LPC
Personalize their experience
Let your child make their anxiety personal. Ask them to name it and draw pictures of what they think it might look like. Use their interpretation of those anxious feelings whenever they experience anxiety.
The brain’s limbic system is responsible for the fight or flight reactions when we encounter threats and feared situations. When emotions kick into high gear, you can’t always expect things to drop off as quickly as they probably spiked. It takes time.
Allow your anxious child the time they need to de-stress and regroup. With your coaching and help, they can slowly calm down and relax, knowing that they’re in a safe space with someone they trust.
Experiment with distress tolerance techniques. Maybe your child will find they’re calmer after washing their face with cool water. You could teach them how to repeat an affirmation or mantra. Encourage them to run around the house or outside to burn off energy. Let them draw a picture or write a story. Even something as simple as counting how many crickets they can find in the yard could be a good distraction and help them reset.
Be a confident role model
Children can naturally emulate the adults in their life they love and trust most. If you have anxiety disorders, be mindful of your symptom expression when you’re around your child. You may unknowingly be teaching them to react emotionally to situations where remaining calm would be more productive. Understand that your child is watching you and striving to be like you.
Finding Support Along the Way
The American Psychological Association (APA) points out that periodic anxiety is natural and can even be healthy. It’s a set of psychological, physiological, and physical symptoms that occur to keep us aware of situations that excite, threaten, or challenge us. Anxiety can often be a good thing.
However, when these psychological, physiological, and physical symptoms become disruptive or start affecting a child’s life, it might be time to address things. If you believe that your child might have a childhood anxiety disorder, it’s quite possible that they might require professional assistance such as online therapy. Speak with your pediatrician if anxiety is interfering with schoolwork, social situations, and/or home life. Left untreated, an anxiety disorder in children can cause developmental delays and long-term effects that become more difficult to manage over time.
It’s important to remember that you’re not alone. If you’re feeling overwhelmed because of your child’s anxiety, you might want to think about finding support from a local group in your community. You may even consider seeking therapy yourself. Navigating your child’s anxiety can be tough, but you can do it, and you don’t have to do it on your own.
Finally, keep in mind that many children experience anxiety symptoms for a certain time period, only for them to disappear. Being patient is essential as you help your child work through their anxious feelings.