Does my child have an axiety disorder?

Children with anxiety disorders are often very well-behaved and do not bother others. They can easily be overlooked, because they do not get into trouble and do not like to draw attention to themselves.
Even though it may be hard to detect anxiety in children, there are still distinct signs that parents should be aware of.

What characterises children with an anxiety disorder?

  • Children with anxiety disorders may be extremely well-behaved in school and in the company of others (but not necessarily at home).
  • They may ask a lot of unnecessary questions and constantly require reassurance.
  • They may become unbalanced if they make mistakes or if there are changes to their routines.
  • They may be loners or may only want to be in the company of a very few select people with whom they are comfortable (who may be older or younger than themselves).
  • They may rarely answer questions or say anything of their own volition.
  • They may become ill when they have to perform in school.
  • They may not want to participate in social activities, such as other children’s birthdays.
  • They may cling to their parents when they are outside the comfort of their own home.
  • They may worry that “bad” things are going to happen.
  • They may worry about going back to school after a holiday or perhaps after the weekend.
  • They avoid or evade difficult or unfamiliar situations by e.g. making up excuses or getting ill.
  • They may lose their composure if one of their best friends is absent from school.
  • They may often ask questions that begin with “what if?”
  • They may be overly perfectionistic, e.g. by spending an excessive amount of time doing their homework.
  • They may have difficulty sleeping, take a long time to fall asleep or wake up during the night and need to be comforted by their parents (and may insist on falling asleep in the parents’ bedroom).
  • They may suffer from regular head aches or stomach aches.
  • They can be argumentative, especially when trying to avoid a situation they are anxious about.
  • They may be pessimistic and inclined to consider things that may go wrong in every situation they are engaged in.

Different types of anxiety in children and adolescents

There are various ways in which children may express anxiety.

Children with specific phobias are afraid of particular objects or situations. They may be afraid of e.g. specific animals, seeing blood, heights or flying. These situations, or the mere prospect of them occurring, will trigger severe anxiety, and the children will typically react by becoming angry, by crying, freezing up or clinging to their parents.

Children with separation anxiety are worried that something bad will happen to their mum or dad or to themselves when they are not with their loved ones. For this reason, they experience anxiety when they are away from their parents, and they often refuse to go to school, sleep at a friend’s house or go on field trips.

Children with social anxieties act shy and withdrawn when they are in the company of others, and they worry a lot about what others think of them. For this reason, they tend to avoid social situations, such as birthdays, parties, sports events, buying things in stores or talking on the telephone. They often have a hard time making friends and therefore feel very lonely.

Children with generalised anxiety disorders are overly concerned about a range of aspects in their lives. They worry about e.g. their schooling, competitions, sports, their families, illness and the idea of new things happening. They often need to be continually reassured to calm down, and they may experience physical symptoms such as head or stomach aches, nausea and diarrhoea.

A panic disorder consists of repeated, unexpected and severe anxiety attacks that appear to come from out of the blue. After the attack, the child may worry about having recurrent panic attacks or about what causes the attacks. Panic attacks often cause the child to avoid specific places and activities where it would be particularly uncomfortable to suffer an attack, because it is hard to get away or get help. Panic disorders rarely occur during childhood, but it may occur in adolescents.

Depression is often associated with anxiety disorders. Children who are depressed may appear sad, without energy, unmotivated and may develop a habit of self-reproach. They may feel that they have nothing to look forward to in life.

Many children experience several of these symptoms simultaneously, and they may also have other troubles, such as problems with their friends and their school work.

Anxiety is a common feeling that normally helps us avoid danger or perform to the best of our abilities in stressful situations. It is normal for children to experience brief periods of anxiety. However, if the child is experiencing a more persistent form of anxiety to such an extent that it affects the child’s joy and quality of life, or if it affects the child’s ability to perform everyday activities, you may need to seek professional help. 
Whether anxiety should be considered a problem depends on:

  • The degree of the child’s anxiety (how severe it is)
  • The persistence of the child’s anxiety
  • Whether the child’s anxiety is age appropriate
  • The degree to which the anxiety affects the child’s happiness and daily activities

Anxiety can affect people of all ages. Anxiety disorders are the most common psychological disorders in children and adolescents. For about one in ten children, the anxiety is so severe that it interferes with the child’s daily life and development. A lot of children with a severe anxiety disorder eventually outgrow the anxiety or gain positive experiences that may help them overcome the anxiety. However, in some children, a severe anxiety disorder will continue to limit their self-realisation throughout their lives.