Anxiety Disorders in Children: Symptoms & Causes

Instructor: David White
Anxiety disorders are common in all age groups, but they can have a very serious effect on children in various stages of development. Through this lesson, you will learn what defines an anxiety disorder and explore some of the symptoms that manifest in young people.

What Is an Anxiety Disorder?

Have you ever felt like something is wrong but you can't quite identify what's worrying you? Maybe you've experienced a sense of dread about having to speak in public or about meeting new people? These are examples of anxiety, which can at times be overwhelming or make you afraid. Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, and if we give it some thought, we can usually identify why we're feeling that way. Moreover, while it can be intense, periodic anxiety usually passes and we move on with our lives.

When feelings of anxiety don't seem to have a cause, happen frequently, and don't go away, there's good reason to suspect that you have an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder is one of a number of clinical mental health diagnosis that are characterized by non-specific worry about the past, present, or future, which lingers and can have a significant impact on a person's behavior, thought pattern, or emotional well-being.

This classification of disorders includes generalized anxiety, panic disorder, specific phobias, and social anxiety disorder, among others. These disorders are slightly different from one another, but they have many similarities, including moments of intense fear and bouts of depression. Anxiety disorders can have a strong negative influence on a person's life, but they can be particularly challenging in children, who are still in critical stages of development.

Anxiety in Children

Like adults, most children experience periods of anxiety. In fact, anxiety is a very normal part of our functioning that helps us to be more aware in potentially dangerous or harmful situations. For example, stranger anxiety is a natural part of human development that causes very young children to be cautious about unfamiliar people or situations. In stranger anxiety, you can see how some anxiety is useful or rational. The problem, however, is that if it is not managed properly, this anxiety can get out of control and start to have a negative effect on a child's life.

In anxiety disorders, the fears are often irrational or unrealistic.

The trick with anxiety, particularly in children, is learning to recognize when it is reasonable and when it is pathological, meaning that it is compulsive and may be related to a larger emotional problem. When anxiety becomes pathological, it can cause the child to become inordinately fearful and stressed. Unlike stranger anxiety, which has benefits, these kinds of anxieties can lead to children becoming depressed or not developing positive social skills.

Causes of Childhood Anxiety

There is no one specific thing that causes anxiety in children or adults; rather, it tends to be a combination of things. A major factor can be genetics, which means that the disorder is in some way passed down from a parent or grandparent. The brain is an incredibly complex organ, but one theory is that the person may have an overactive fight or flight response. For example, when a person senses a realistic threat to their physical or emotional safety, their brain quickly determines whether or not they should face the danger or run away. In a person with an overactive fight or flight response, that perceived danger might be very small or not really exist at all.

Other common contributors to childhood anxiety are the many transitional or potentially traumatic experiences that occur throughout childhood. Imagine that you are a child with a slight social phobia and you're about to enter a new school where you don't know anyone. This would probably make anyone a little nervous, but if you had a genetic predisposition to anxiety, those feelings could start to snowball the more you focused on it until you reached the point of panic at the thought of everything that could potentially go wrong.

The previous example is one of the milder situations, but there are others that are more traumatic and can trigger an anxiety disorder. Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, for example, can accurately be perceived as a threat to a child's safety and cause them to be constantly on guard because they never know when they'll be attacked.

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