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Childhood Anxiety Disorders

“They are only a kid! What does a child have to be anxious about?”

When it comes to childhood anxiety, things can get tricky! It is not uncommon for children or adolescents to have anxiety, such as feeling afraid on the first day of school or feeling jittery the night before a large exam. However, what may start as typical worries can shift into something more serious, which often kids will try to keep hidden or express them in ways that are challenging to decipher.

Having anxiety does not always mean that person cannot function or is not happy. However, it may mean that certain areas of functioning are made more difficult, such as within friendships, life at home or completing school. For example, a parent may begin to notice that their child’s chores which used to take twenty minutes are now taking an hour and repeated requests for reassurance that it was done correctly before being able to move on. Or a child may verbalize worrying about things that a parent may not expect would cause worry, such as about recess, lunchtime, the weather and the future.

Given that it is internal, many of the symptoms of anxiety are nearly invisible to others, such as feeling shaky, short of breath, having clammy hands, racing heart or dry mouth. It is also not uncommon for anxiety to be expressed outwardly, such as difficulties with sleeping, frequent stomachaches, avoidance of certain situations or people, challenges with maintaining focus or appearing fidgety and irritability. However, parents can also look out for patterns in how their kids are describing their feeling, such as being shy, worried, afraid or self-conscious, which may capture underlying anxiety they are struggling with.

These symptoms of anxiety are the result of the body’s “fight-or-flight” natural reaction to perceived danger. While this response is there to protect us, preparing us to deal with danger, individuals with anxiety disorders have an overactive “fight-or-flight” response, even when there is no real danger.

What Causes Childhood Anxiety Disorders?

A number of things may be in play to foster the development of an anxiety disorder in your child or teen.

  • Genetics: If your child has a family member with an anxiety disorder, your child is likely to have one too! This is simply a result of the genes your child inherited that may predispose them to being anxious.
  • Brain Chemistry: Depending on your child’s gene make-up, his or her brain chemicals (also called neurotransmitters) may not be produced in the right amount or working properly, leading them to feel anxious.
  • Learned Behaviors: Being in an environment where others are fearful or worried may over time teach a child to be overly cautious or afraid as well.

Avoidance Feeds Anxiety

Research has shown that as children age, the prevalence rates of anxiety disorders also increase. Moreover, childhood anxiety is often a precursor for adult anxiety, especially for those who haven’t received prior treatment. While kids might find ways to temporarily avoid situations, people or places that make them anxious, over time this strategy only reinforces anxiety. People living with untreated anxiety for an extended period of time may also begin to develop depression.

Luckily, here at ATCA we are experts at treating anxiety and we use only evidence-based treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure-based therapies. These approaches teach kids that when they avoid what they fear, the fear stays in control, but when they face a fear little by little, the fear gets weak and goes away.