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How Anxiety Disorders Affect Children

written by: Alicia Miller • edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick • updated: 3/18/2011

Childhood anxiety disorders affect a surprising number of children each year. There are several main anxiety disorders in children that produce a wide variety of symptoms. In this article, you'll learn the ways in which children are affected by these types of anxiety disorders.

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    Childhood Anxiety Disorders

    Children experience anxiety due to stress, emotional overload, fear, and frightening situations just as adults do. In fact, some degree of anxiety is a normal part of childhood and the maturation process. While a certain level of anxiety is normal, constant, persistent anxiety that interferes with development and everyday functioning is not. When anxiety levels become abnormal, due to stress, family situations, hereditary conditions or other factors, anxiety disorders may develop. In fact, the Anxiety Disorders Association of America points out that one in eight children suffer from an anxiety disorder. Childhood anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, separation anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, selective mutism and specific phobias.

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    Generalized Anxiety Disorder

    Generalized anxiety disorder is one of the most common anxiety disorders in children. It is displayed mainly through symptoms like excessive or irrational worry. Children may experience inordinate amounts of worry about topics such as school performance, sports or other extracurricular activities, friendships, and relationships with others. This constant worrying may interfere with their sleep patterns, eating habits and can manifest in other symptoms such as stomach complaints, headaches, or unexplained bodily aches and pains.

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    Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

    Another of the more relatively common anxiety disorders in children is obsessive-compulsive disorder. This disorder stems from a feeling of lack of control over feelings of anxiety. Children develop obsessive thought patterns and often elaborate ritualistic behaviors, or compulsions, in an attempt to control and alleviate some of their fears and anxiety. Common themes in compulsions include a fear of germs or a fear or the dark.

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    Panic Disorder

    Panic disorder is an often-frightening disorder that causes panic attacks that seem to occur "out of the blue". To be diagnosed with panic disorder, children must experience two or more panic attacks followed by one month of intense worry that they might experience another attack. Panic attacks are intense episodes of panic stemming from feelings of dread, worry, fear, a need to escape or a feeling that their life is somehow in danger. Symptoms include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, sweating, shaking, nausea, lightheadedness, and a variety of other possible physical and mental symptoms.

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    Childhood anxiety disorders can affect children in many different and profound ways. Continuing our discussion outlining all the disorders in this class, on this page we'll explain Separation Anxiety Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Specific Phobias. Identifying which of the childhood anxiety disorders your little loved ones might have is the first step toward getting them the help they need,
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    Separation Anxiety Disorder

    Separation anxiety disorder is an anxiety disorder experienced by 4% of all children. Most toddlers experience separation anciety when they are first learning to assert their independence or when their parent leaves them alone for a brief period of time but are unsure of whether their parent will still be there when they return or if their parent will come back. Separation anxiety disorder occurs in children who are slightly older than four years of age, usually between the ages of seven and nine, but are still unable to separate from their parents. It's normal, for example, for children to exhibit clingy, anxious behavior when being brought to daycare or kindergarten for the first time, but when this behavior persists into elementary school, it could be a sign of separation anxiety disorder.

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    Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

    Post-traumatic stress disorder sometimes occurs in response to an extremely stressful event experienced by the child. where they feel that their life or the lives of their parents or caretakers are in danger. Symptoms include emotional numbness, irritablity, fear, and avoidance of people or places that remind them of the event. Sometimes, it entails deep depression also. It's normal for children to experience these symptoms after witnessing or living through a stressful event, such as the illness or death or a parent, and they often recover within a certain period of time. Children who exhibit these symptoms for a prolonged period of time may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

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    Social Anxiety Disorder

    Social anxiety disorder is characterized by an intense, irrational fear and worry over social situations. Situations where the child feels like they are going to be judged or criticized, such as being chosen for teams in gym class or being called on by a teacher, can excarbate these symptoms.

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    Selective Mutism

    Selective mutism is a communication disorder that occurs when a child refuses to speak in a social setting. They may speak normally and communicate with others in comfortable settings, but refuse to speak in settings where they feel fear or anxiety, such as in school or daycare settings. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association points out that selective mutism usually first presents in children under the age of five.

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    Specific Phobias

    Specific phobias include fears of specific places, people or things. Children may develop fears in response to traumatic events or experiences, for example, a child who is chased by a dog may develop a fear of all dogs. Other common phobias include a fear of heights, certain animals, blood, medical procedures or doctors and a fear of the dark.