Anxiety disorders of childhood
Fears and worries are part of child development and parent see different fears and worries coming out across the lifespan. However, when the fears or anxieties get to a point when they start to impact on the child's functioning then children refusing to go to school or socialize with friends. So the parents start to become more concerned. Being scared of the dark, or feeling worried about exams, or worried about what peers might think, all very normal worries to have but when the intensity of that worry is out of proportion both with the situation and what is developmentally appropriate, then parents might class it as an anxiety disorder.
It's a bit like a leaf falling on a car and the car alarm going off. There’s an overestimation of the danger in relation to the situation. Young children with anxiety can't always express or understand their feelings, so it's important to know what to look out for.
Symptoms of anxiety in children:
Symptoms can include:
- Increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Tension in muscles
Children common fear during anxiety:
Children with anxiety can often experience negative thoughts or worries. They can become overwhelmed by what if thoughts, getting anxious about things that might happen in the future. Some children might spend a significant amount of time worrying about past events and these thoughts might be associated with vivid and detailed images. They might try to avoid the things they fear, people, animals or objects and as the disorder develops they may start to avoid certain situations altogether. Even ones they used to enjoy.
This avoidance can have a significant impact on their day-to-day lives. Some children with anxiety develop what are called safety behaviors, routines or practices that they feel will help to keep them safe. They might carry things with them in case they encounter something they are afraid of, or they might seek regular reassurance from their parents or teachers.
They may be visibly distressed if they are unable to carry out normal practices. A child can get very upset and angry when they're feeling anxious and often this is particularly directed at caregivers. And the reason for that is that they're feeling very worried about a situation, they can't communicate that.
Sleep anxiety in children:
Worrying at bedtime can be very common in children with anxiety disorders. This is often a time when maybe there's less to distract the young children away from their worries, so perhaps they focus on them more and think about them over and over again. This can obviously lead to difficulties falling asleep, nightmares linked to their anxieties and frequently waking up during the night.
How Social Anxiety Affects Friendships:
Another area that can be impacted is friendships. So a child who feels worried about what other people might think, as in, social anxiety. They might find it really hard to get to know new people and build relationships but also to sustain them. This could be because of their fears and worries that they're starting to avoid situations, maybe not going to parties or play dates with friends because they feel safer being at home.
Children may find that they feel safer with adults, particularly caregivers. As the anxiety disorder develops, at school, young people might prefer to spend play time in with teachers because they feel safer and more secure, with the assumption that if something did go wrong, then the adult would be there to keep them safe.
Does Anxiety Cause Headaches?
Children that often are complaining or feeling sick or having headaches and actually, rather than it, being a physical sickness it's really the symptoms of anxiety that they're misinterpreting as there being something wrong. It's worth noting that a lot of these symptoms can overlap with symptoms of depression as well, and actually, we find that the two disorders, so anxiety disorders and depression, can often co-occur in young people. It's important to reiterate that some of these symptoms can just be part of normal development and actually most children will experience some of these at some point during their life.
Parent’s role in child anxiety:
A child who is finding it really hard to keep up with schoolwork or having problems academically, might feel quite anxious about their performance. And a child can learn a lot from their parents, and, although not intentionally, a parent might model anxiety responses. A child might see how their parent responds in a feared situation and they might copy that.
Just because a child is anxious, does not mean, necessarily that one needs to intervene. It will be important to just watchfully wait and actually see whether the anxiety has a really debilitating effect on the functioning of that child or not. It might be, with some time, actually the child is able to better function and manage the anxiety.
What causes anxiety disorders in children or Risk factor of child anxiety:
There can be a number of risk factors that might make young people more likely to experience an anxiety disorder. Some of these are genetic or biological factors but also bullying or frequent friendship difficulties. If a child has been through a difficult situation, such as their parents divorcing or a particular trauma in the house, that can make them more vulnerable.
How to help your anxious child or Treatments for anxiety disorders in children:
- One of the key ways to support young people who might be developing anxiety disorder, is talk to them.
- So to help them think about what their worries are, what their difficulties are and why they might be struggling in certain situations and to have that open dialogue and to be supportive.
- When anxiety does persist and does become severe and is affecting the functioning of a child, it might well be important to refer to a service that will be able to support them.
- Within a school, the first point of call is often the SENCO and SENCO's have lots of experience of working with children with anxiety.
- Another referral option is to go to the GP and ask the GP to refer to a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service.