Anxiety disorders in children range from 2.4 per cent to 17 per cent. Research suggests that there can be long-term implication of experiencing anxiety in childhood including an increased risk for additional diagnosis, mental health challenges in adulthood, as well as lower functioning in academic performance, peer relationships, and family relationships.
It is important to note that mild fears and anxiety are part of normal human development. The number of fears that children experience typically decrease as children mature. Although childhood fears can be normal experiences, it is important to pay closer attention to experiences of anxiety that are exaggerated and beyond what one would expect given a situation.
Symptoms of anxiety that become more intense and more extensive, and that interfere with a child’s school, peer or family functioning may warrant mental health interventions. When overly anxious, most children exhibit physical symptoms including increased heart rate, increased breathing, sweating, nausea, stomach aches, headaches, etc. as well as some form of avoidance of situations, people or objects that cause anxiety.
Types of anxiety in children:
Children with specific phobias have fears that are specific to a particular situation or object. In general, these children try to avoid contact with the situation or object. Examples of specific phobias include dogs, the dark, spiders, storms and injections.
Children with separation anxiety exhibit an excessive fear related to being away from a main caregiver, most commonly the child’s mother. They often fear that something terrible will happen to a parent while they are apart and they will never see the parent again. At times, significant life stressors can trigger separation anxiety such as a change in schools, a move or death of relative.
This is a condition in which the child has many worries and fears. Children with generalized anxiety are often described by parents as “worrywarts.” Worries can be in the areas of health, schoolwork, sport performance, bills, burglaries, etc. New situations often provoke an anxiety response.
Children with social anxiety exhibit a fear of situations in which they will have to interact with others or be the focus of attention. At the core of social anxiety is a fear of being embarrassed, humiliated or rejected. Typical feared situations include meeting new people, talking on the telephone, joining team sports and talking at school or preschool.
If a child presents any of the following behaviours, consider this a red flag:
► Consistent avoidance of a specific feared situation or object
► Emotional dysregulation or panicked in the presence of the feared situation or object
► Upset beyond what is expected when separated from primary caregiver
► Child expression of concern about primary caregiver being hurt or getting sick
► Refusal to sleep at other people’s homes if parents are not there
► Complaints of stomach ache, feeling sick or other somatic symptoms in anticipation of being separated from caregiver
► Difficulty staying or going into a room by themselves, “clinging” behaviour, staying close to and “shadowing” the parent around the house
► Difficulty at bedtime and possible insistence that someone stay with them until they fall asleep
► Fear more than usual in new situations
► Fear of making mistakes and not performing well
► Child asks lots of questions and often seeks reassurance from parents
► Worries more than usual after seeing a scary movie or watching a news program