Anxiety can be a common feeling that everyone experiences at some point in their lives in response to a stressful emotional situation. This unpleasant state is comprised of the body biochemical response to a real or perceived threat of danger, and involves a subjective sense of fear and worry. If your child experiences this anxious feeling that becomes persistent, uncontrolled, and it affects their ability to function normally each day, a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder should be made by your physician. However, this diagnosis depends largely on your child’s current lifestyle situation, life stressors and the effect that their anxiety has on their day to day life.
What Causes Anxiety In Young Children
There are many causes of anxiety in children, ranging from situational stressors to biochemical changes. It is important to contact your doctor if you notice that your child is experiencing feelings of anxiety, regardless of the perceived or surmised cause.
A death in the family can be a guaranteed trigger for anxiety in children. Whether there is a loss of a grandparent, sibling, or pet, it is important to recognize the effects that these devastating and life changing losses have on your child. In addition to the loss of loved ones and beloved pets, another life change that is stressful is moving to a new place. Relocating your child often results in the loss of all familiarity for your child in terms of school, friends and neighborhood. Divorce, remarriage and changes in your living environment, such as loss of a home due to financial reasons can also all play an integral part in your child’s worries and anxiety issues.
Changes in the family dynamic of your household can greatly affect your child’s sense of security and stability. The birth of a new sibling, remarriage, addition of step siblings or having extended family join the immediate household all affect the level of your child’s stress and anxiety.
Many families live a life on the go in today’s day and age. Children are regularly shuttled to school, sports practice, music class, dance lessons and more on a day to day basis. Oftentimes weekends are comprised of sports games, karate tournaments, birthday parties, social events and religious functions, leaving little or no down time for your child. Some children find this over-scheduling to be stressful, leading to anxieties and fears in general.
Difficulties In School
If your child has difficulty learning in school this will definitely cause him or her certain amount of stress or anxiety. Having a learning disability, dysgraphia or dyslexia can all be factors that contribute to your child’s stress in school. Additionally, some children who are having difficulty when taking tests or performing in front of a class for presentations or reports will manifest these difficulties into fears and anxieties about school, as well as other life situations.
National And World Events
After September 11th, 2001, anxiety among children in the United States and even around the world skyrocketed. Just as we adults felt fearful of enduring another terrorist attack, our children were also exposed to this new world problem. Coupled with worries of terrorism, fears of gun violence in schools and child predators, this generation of children have distinctly more worries than that their parents did at their age.
Exposure To Distressing Media
Most children will insist that the latest movie, video game, television show or book will not frighten them, but today’s media is much more vivid and realistic than the media of yesteryear. Sometimes your child may not even realize that reading a scary story before bed is causing them to have nightmares and anxiety. Take time to really check out what media your child is being exposed to, as many times video games and movies are a lot more frightening and gory than you could imagine.
Type A Personality
Some children naturally have what some psychologists coined the “Type A” personality. This type of personality includes extremely self-motivated and self-critical attributes. Your child may be subjecting themselves to self-generated pressure to be the smartest, best athlete or to fit in socially, which can all cause anxiety.
Children with the ability to be both interpersonal and intrapersonal can sometimes develop a sense of Existential Anxiety, or knowledge of personal mortality. This sense of mortality can significantly affect your child’s fears about life and death, especially if he or she is not old enough to emotionally and mentally grasp this concept.
Socializing and performing in front of others, making friends and relating with peers are all normal causes of anxiety in children. Factor in bullying and identifying with groups of people who endure prejudice, such as the LGBT community, and you have the perfect storm for social fear and anxiety.
Living in an area with large amounts of pollution, receding forests and land or contaminated lakes and water can cause anxiety in both children and adults alike. Occupational environmental triggers of anxiety can also include living or going to school in an environment with consistent loud noises, such as being near a train track or an airport.
If your child is exposed to anxious thoughts and behaviors as a child, from family, friends or educators, this can manifest into anxiety. For example, if a parent is fearful of snakes and relays this fear to his or her child by avoiding snakes and overreacting to snake encounters this can easily create an anxiety about snakes in their child.
Children who have experienced a traumatic situation, such as a natural disaster like a tornado, or fire may experience residual anxiety due to this prior event. There is no timeline for post traumatic issues to appear either, as some children may show anxiety immediately after a traumatic event and other children will manifest their anxiety weeks, months or even years later.
Certain medical issues can cause anxiety in children, like endocrine disorders, An example of this is Cushing’s syndrome, where an overproduction of cortisol by the adrenal cortex creates anxiety without a situational cause.
Biochemical changes can occur in children due to a variety of factors, including heredity, genetics, hormones and environment. When your child’s anxiety is determined to be biochemically based, medication may be an option suggested by your doctor.
Signs & Symptoms: Diagnosing Anxiety In Children
Your physician can refer you to a child psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, social worker or counselor, who can help to diagnose and assess your child’s anxiety. There are certain signs and symptoms that your child may display which can indicate to both you and your clinician that an anxiety disorder may be present.
There are many physical symptoms that can be manifested from anxiety in children. Stomach troubles are common ailments for children who experience stress and anxiety. Your child may complain of a stomach ache, a lack of appetite or gastrointestinal irregularities. Headaches and dizziness may also be likely signs of anxiety in your child, along with lightheadedness, particularly if your child experiences panic attacks. Some children experience insomnia or trouble sleeping when they are dealing with anxiety. Take care to have your child evaluated by a physician to determine that there are no concrete physical causes for their symptoms before deciding that anxiety is the root cause behind their physical ailments.
Changes in your child’s behavior can be indicative of anxiety. Behaviors like restlessness, acting up in school or home situations, inability to concentrate and fear of being around others may all be signs of an anxiety disorder in your child.
If your child develops nervous habits, such as hand-wringing, nail biting or foot tapping, he or she may be acting out signs of anxiety.
When your child expresses overwhelming fear or anxious thoughts they may be experiencing anxiety. Recurrent feelings of concern for the well-being of themselves and others, thoughts of impending doom, automatic negative thoughts or the habit of making thoughts and situations catastrophic can all indicate anxiety in your child.
If your child is extremely emotional, cries easier than normal, appears keyed up or displays panic and terror at non-threatening events and situations this could also indicate an anxiety disorder.
Identifying Types Of Anxiety Disorders In Children
Once you have ascertained that your child may indeed have an anxiety disorder you will likely receive a diagnosis of your child’s specific type of disorder from your healthcare practitioner. Your child psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor may determine one or several types of anxiety disorders to be the cause of your child’s behavior.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Also known as GAD, this is a disorder based on overanxious and fearful behavior on a consistent basis. Children with this disorder may constantly fear new situations or worry that everything will go wrong or fail in their lives. Oftentimes the fears of these children are greatly exaggerated compared to reality. Undiagnosed thyroid conditions can mimic some symptoms of GAD, so it is important that you rule out any thyroid abnormalities with your family physician.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Children with separation anxiety disorder often have intense fears that something will happen to their family and/or friends if they are not with them at all times. These children may also have unwarranted and irrational fears of being kidnapped.
Social Anxiety Disorder
A child with social anxiety disorder can have an extreme fear of being around other people, no matter what age these people are. Avoidance of public situations and isolating oneself from group situations can be two of many signs of social anxiety disorder.
Children with panic disorder will regularly experience physical manifestations of this mental illness, including tremors and shaking, racing heart rate, sweating, dizziness, chest pain, shortness of breath and a feeling of a surreal life. After just one panic attack many of these children will often become fearful that another attack will ensue, so they go to great lengths to avoid situations that they deem to be triggers of their attacks.
Also known as OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder occurs when your child has certain thoughts, actions or both that consume their time and actions. Washing their hands on their own is a wonderful thing, but if he or she is completing this action over and over again when it is unnecessary, and they seem obsessed with doing this action, he or she may be diagnosed with OCD.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder is repressed anxiety based on a prior traumatic event, such as a death in the family, house fire or a natural disaster like a tornado. Not all children who experience traumatic events in their lives go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. If your child exhibits behaviors such as reliving traumatic experiences, avoiding certain situations that correlate with prior trauma or sleep issues and nightmares he or she may be experiencing PTSD.
Determining the signs and symptoms of anxiety in children is a concerning situation for all parents and caretakers involved. Take care to seek proper guidance regarding your child’s anxiety, and have him or her evaluated by a reputable child psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist. Consult with your family physician or pediatrician as well, to be certain that your child has no underlying physical causes for their anxious behaviors.
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