Childhood Anxiety Disorders

Condition

Anxiety disorders are the most common behavioral health concern in the U.S., affecting about 8% of children and teens. At Mercy, we help kids manage childhood anxiety disorders so they can get more enjoyment from life.

Anxiety in Adolescence

Adolescents with anxiety disorders experience extreme worry and fear that’s persistent and interferes with daily living. They get excessively anxious about everyday issues, such as grades, friends, family and their physical safety. At Mercy, our pediatricians and behavioral health experts diagnose and treat many types of anxiety disorders in adolescents and young children.

For children with GAD, excessive worries and fears can become a chronic state. They struggle to stop the worry cycle, which may impact their school attendance, academic performance, participation in extracurricular activities, and peer and family relationships. The risk of developing GAD is highest between childhood and middle age.

Kids with separation anxiety disorder display an age-inappropriate fear of being separated from their parents or away from home. They may refuse to go to school, be alone or sleep alone. Frequent nightmares and physical complaints like headaches and stomach upset are common in children with an anxiety disorder. 

Children with social anxiety disorder are often very shy around strangers and don’t like interacting with people. They often resist going to school and socializing with their peers, so they tend to have few friends outside the family. If forced into a social situation, a child with social anxiety disorder may become angry or upset.

Specific phobias are irrational fears of certain objects or situations, such as storms, the dark, animals, insects or heights. Kids with phobias experience significant distress and may have panic attacks when faced with the situations and objects they fear.

What Causes Anxiety in Children?

Feeling worried or scared at times is a normal part of childhood. Kids can get anxious for many reasons, from major changes like starting a new school to everyday events like taking a big test. While many kids overcome these anxieties, some struggle to let go of the worry, fear and sorrow they experience. This can lead to childhood anxiety disorders. 

Causes & Risk Factors

Several factors can cause or worsen anxiety in children. While characteristics like gender or family history can’t be controlled, children’s anxiety is also triggered by stressful events like trauma or illness.

Girls have a higher risk of developing anxiety disorders. Some studies show they’re up to twice as likely as boys to have the condition.

Anxiety often runs in families. Children of parents who have anxiety disorders are seven times more likely to develop the condition. And experts say 65% of children living with anxious parents meet the criteria for anxiety disorders.

The brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine are involved with many body functions, including mood and emotion. Imbalances in these chemicals can cause anxiety and depression. 

Children who are cautious, fearful, shy and tend to avoid people, objects or situations are more prone to developing anxiety disorders.

Traumatic events like divorce, illness or death in the family can trigger anxiety in children. And family members who are noticeably anxious or stressed can increase children’s anxiety.

Medicines and over-the-counter drugs used to treat allergies, asthma and other conditions can cause or worsen your child’s anxiety. Discuss medication side effects with your Mercy pediatrician.

Anxiety Symptoms in Children

Kids who have anxiety disorders may also be quiet, distracted or shy, so it’s easy to mistake their symptoms. But if left untreated, anxiety disorders can worsen over time. It’s important to watch for feelings or physical signs that your child may need help with anxiety. 

Children with anxiety often experience constant feelings of dread and nervousness. They’re watchful for signs of danger and may appear tense or jumpy. Persistent restlessness or irritability are also common emotional symptoms.

Physical signs of anxiety in kids include shortness of breath, a racing or pounding heart, twitches, tremors or excessive sweating. Children may also experience headaches, tiredness, sleep problems, upset stomach, frequent urination or diarrhea.

Let your Mercy pediatrician know if these emotional or physical symptoms are disrupting your child’s life.

How to Diagnose Anxiety in a Child

At Mercy, our pediatricians and behavioral health specialists are experts at diagnosing anxiety in children and teens. Since there’s no single test used to diagnose anxiety disorders, Mercy providers evaluate kids in multiple ways. They assess overall health to rule out medical problems. And they look for other conditions that often occur with anxiety, such as depression, ADHD, sleep disorders and more.

Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association are used to diagnose anxiety disorders in children.

Childhood Anxiety Treatment

With treatment, most children learn to manage their anxiety and lead active lives. Mercy’s behavioral health specialists can show you how to help your child make positive changes. While there’s no cure for childhood anxiety, many treatment options are available to manage the condition.

Therapy can be effective in helping your child learn to manage his or her anxiety symptoms.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) -  CBT is the most common therapy for treating children’s anxiety. It’s a short-term, goal-oriented form of psychotherapy that helps change negative thought patterns. Unlearning behaviors that feed your child’s anxiety is an important part of CBT treatment.
  • Exposure Therapy - exposure therapy allows your child to face his or her fears in a safe environment. 

A variety of medications can be used to treat anxiety disorders in children – and many of them also treat depression. Several FDA-approved drugs are available that are proven to be safe and effective. Medication may be used in combination with other therapies to reduce anxiety symptoms in children.

 

Your Mercy pediatrician or behavioral health specialist will find the right medication for your child’s individual needs. Your provider will also discuss medication benefits and risks with you. Typically your child will start with a mild dose and be monitored for side effects. If he or she responds well to the medication, the dosage will be adjusted as needed.

Living with an anxiety disorder is manageable when children have the right care and support. Mercy pediatricians and behavioral health specialists offer treatments and therapies to help kids reduce their anxiety and thrive.

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