Understanding Anxiety in Children

It’s normal for children to have fears. They may be afraid of monsters, ghosts, or the dark. At times, they might be frightened by a book or movie. In most cases, these fears fade over time. But children with anxiety disorders are often afraid. Or they may have fears that go away for a while but return again and again. This may cause them great distress and it can prevent them from having a normal life. Children with anxiety disorders can have problems with sleep, appetite, and concentration.

Mother and daughter talking with doctor.

What is an anxiety disorder?

An anxiety disorder causes children to be intensely fearful in situations that would not normally cause fear. They may be afraid of certain objects, such as dogs or snakes. Or, they may fear a situation, such as being alone in the dark. Sometimes they may be too afraid to leave the house.

What is separation anxiety disorder?

Some children may have separation anxiety disorder. This causes them to dread being away from a parent or other loved one. They may worry that they’ll be harmed or never see their family again. In some cases, these children refuse to go to school. They also may have physical symptoms, such as nausea or stomachaches.

Overcoming the fear

Fortunately, most anxious children can be helped with behavior therapy. This is done in steps. When your child feels safe with one step, he or she can go on to the next. This helps your child gradually face and cope with his or her fears. At first, your child may be asked to just think about the feared object. When he or she realizes that nothing bad happens as a result. The next step may be looking at a picture of the feared object. Later, he or she may face the feared object in person, with support and encouragement. Over time, your child will be less afraid. Sometimes, certain medicines may also help lessen your child’s fears.

Your role

Parents should talk to their child's healthcare provider first and rule out any physical problems that may be causing the anxiety symptoms. If anxiety is diagnosed, qualified mental health professionals or a child and adolescent psychiatrist can offer evaluation and support for both the child and the family. Your child's healthcare provider can help with referrals. A mental health professional can tell if your child has an anxiety disorder. If so, appropriate treatment from a qualified professional and your love and support can help your child overcome his or her fears.

Resources

National Institute of Mental Health www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml

Anxiety and Depression Association of America www.adaa.org

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