Does Your Child Have an Anxiety Disorder?

Anxiety Disorders in Children

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Anxiety disorders are common psychiatric illnesses that generally cause feelings of fear or distress in certain situations. Children—even very young children—are not immune to developing an anxiety disorder. If the symptoms are left unrecognized and untreated, children may experience academic difficulties, social and interpersonal problems, and trouble adjusting to new life experiences.

Common Anxiety Disorders in Childhood

The following are the types of anxiety disorder most often seen in children.

Panic Disorder

Recurring panic attacks are the hallmark features of panic disorder. Panic attacks are sudden and intense feelings of terror, fear, or apprehension, without the presence of actual danger. A child with panic disorder may appear anxious or upset about being in certain situations or may have frequent physical complaints (e.g., frequent headaches or stomachaches) before or during certain feared activities.

They may avoid or refuse to be in situations that they perceive as frightening due to the panic response. This may lead to the development of a separate anxiety disorder called agoraphobia.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessions are repeated, intrusive, and unwanted thoughts or images. Compulsions are ritualistic behaviors that are difficult for the child to control. Examples of ritualistic behaviors may include counting, excessive hand washing, word repetition, or a particular focus on arranging objects or personal items.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation anxiety is thought to be a normal part of infant development. It begins when the child is about 8 months old and declines after about 15 months of age. During this period, the child understands the separation between self and primary caretaker. The child understands that they can be separated from the caretaker, but does not comprehend that the caretaker will return, which leads to anxiety.

Separation anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is not a normal developmental phase. It is characterized by age-inappropriate fear of being away from home, parents, or other family members. A child with a separation anxiety disorder may be excessively clingy to family members, may fear going to school, or being alone. They may experience frequent physical complaints.

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)

The features of social anxiety disorder (SAD) include excessive and unreasonable fear of social situations. If forced into a feared situation, the child may become upset and exhibit a temper tantrum.

Children with this disorder may be extremely shy around strangers or groups of people and may express their anxiety by crying or be overly clingy with caregivers. The child may not want to go to school and may avoid interactions with peers.


A phobia is an intense irrational fear of a particular object (e.g., spiders) or situations (e.g., heights). If the child comes into contact with the feared object or situation, they may become very upset, anxious, and experience panic attacks. Phobias can become disabling and interfere with the child’s usual activities.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Children with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are overly anxious about routine everyday matters. They usually anticipate catastrophe or worst-case scenarios in a broad range of situations.

The chronic worry experienced by children with GAD is unreasonable and irrational given the actual circumstances. Children with generalized anxiety disorder often have physical complaints that may include headaches, stomach upset, muscle aches, and fatigue.

Signs and Symptoms

A child with an anxiety disorder may have physical complaints and/or odd or unreasonable behaviors. The following is a list of signs and symptoms that are often found in children with an anxiety disorder.

It is often difficult to distinguish these signs and symptoms from certain medical or other psychological conditions or even normal stage development. As such, this list is not meant to diagnose—only a doctor or other qualified professional can diagnose a child with an anxiety disorder.

  • Bedwetting
  • Decreased academic performance
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty, fear, or avoidance of interacting with peers
  • Extreme shyness or nervousness that is out of proportion with actual situations
  • Fear of being away from home, parents or other family members
  • Frequent crying spells
  • Irritability or frequent temper tantrums
  • Not wanting to sleep alone or fear of darkness
  • Odd rituals, such as excessive hand washing, counting, or arranging objects
  • Ongoing physical complaints that may include headaches, upset stomach, muscle aches or fatigue
  • Refusal or reluctance to go to school
  • Trouble sleeping or nightmares

This list is not meant to be all-inclusive. A child may have an anxiety disorder even if these signs and symptoms are not apparent. If you suspect your child has an anxiety disorder, talk to a doctor or mental health professional.

A Word From Verywell

As with anxiety in adults, girls experience anxiety disorders at about twice the rate of boys. Because of this and because anxiety tends to grow worse over time if left untreated, experts suggest that girls aged 13 and older should be screened for anxiety during routine health exams. Screening can be helpful for identifying anxiety symptoms early on so that they can be treated before causing significant disruptions in a child's life.

If your child is struggling with an anxiety disorder, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gregory KD, Chelmow D, Nelson HD, et al. Screening for anxiety in adolescent and adult women: A recommendation from the Women's Preventive Services Initiative. Ann Intern Med. 2020. doi:10.7326/M20-0580

Additional Reading
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. Washington, DC: 2013.

By Sheryl Ankrom, MS, LCPC
Sheryl Ankrom is a clinical professional counselor and nationally certified clinical mental health counselor specializing in anxiety disorders.