What Are Anxiety Disorders in Children?

An overview of the types of anxiety disorders that are common in children

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Anxiety is a normal and common part of childhood. In most cases, anxiety in children is temporary and may be triggered by a specific stressful event. For example, a young child may experience separation anxiety when starting preschool or kindergarten. Or a child may see a scary movie or learn about a tragic news event and have trouble sleeping.

In some cases, however, anxiety in children can be persistent and intense and can interfere with a child’s daily routines and activities such as going to school, making friends, or sleeping. When anxiety in children is constant and serious and doesn’t go away with reassurance and comfort, it is classified as an anxiety disorder.

Types of Anxiety Disorders in Children

Generalized anxiety disorder. Children who have generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, experience constant, excessive, and uncontrollable fears about any number of everyday things such as grades, family issues, performing well in sports, being on time, or even natural disasters. Children with generalized anxiety disorder may be more likely to be perfectionists. They may experience trouble sleeping, irritability, or find it difficult to concentrate at school.

Separation anxiety disorder. Toddlers frequently experience separation anxiety when a parent or caregiver leaves the room. As children get older and attend daycare, preschool or kindergarten, they can experience separation anxiety when they are dropped off by mom or dad. Separation anxiety usually goes away as children become acclimated to their new environment and caregiver or teacher. But even beyond kindergarten, a child can have trouble being separated from a parent and may experience excessive distress or anxiety. Grade-schoolers who have separation anxiety disorder may be reluctant to go to school or sleep alone. Children with separation anxiety disorder may also fear that something bad will happen to their parents or themselves when they are not together.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Children who have obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, have frequent thoughts that they can’t control called obsessions. They may feel compelled to perform routines and rituals, called compulsions, to try to control their thoughts and ease their anxiety. For instance, a child with ​OCD may spend a lot of time performing rituals involving hand washing, counting, repeating words, or repeatedly checking and rechecking things to keep unpleasant thoughts, images, or feelings at bay.

Post-traumatic stress disorder. Children can develop post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, after witnessing or experiencing a life-threatening or traumatic event such as a robbery or a car accident. While it’s normal to be fearful, worried, or sad after experiencing a frightening event, many children may recover fairly quickly. However, some children—particularly those who experienced the traumatic event directly or who lack a strong support system at home—can develop PTSD. These children can continue to experience flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, depression, and intense fear and anxiety, and reenact the traumatic incident while playing. They may withdraw and avoid people, places and activities months after the traumatic event.

Phobias. Children with a phobia have an intense, extreme, and irrational fear of something specific, such as a dog, needles, or the dark. Other common phobias in children include fear of thunderstorms, flying, water, heights, and blood. Children with phobias are less likely than adults to be able to put their fears into proportion or realize that their fears are irrational.

If you suspect that your child may have an anxiety disorder, talk to your child's pediatrician or get a referral to a child mental health expert. Early diagnosis and treatment are important for effective treatment of anxiety disorders in children. Untreated anxiety disorders in children can have a negative effect on developing friendships and may lead to problems at school and low self-esteem.

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