Overview of Anxiety Disorders in Young Children

Overview of Anxiety Disorders in Young Children
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Anxiety is the mood state where an individual experience strong negative emotion and bodily symptoms owing to fear of uncertain future danger or misfortune. Anxiety disorder is excessive and debilitating anxiety.

Types of Anxiety Disorders

Simple Phobias**: The most common type of anxiety disorders in young children up to the age of ten are the simple phobias or intense anxiety to a circumstance or object that actually poses no danger. Examples include fear of thunderstorms, water, blood, large animals and insects. Such fears are common in most children, but develop into disorder that requires treatment when it becomes excessive, unreasonable, and persists for a long time.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder: General anxiety disorder in children is the same as uncontrolled worry in adults, and entails excessive and unrealistic worry of a wide gamut of situations ranging from school grades to storms, excessive attention to details of normal activities such as homework, and worries about “worrying.” Symptoms include irritability, restlessness, tiredness, headaches, stomach aches, difficulty in concentrating, excessive muscle tension, and sleep disturbance. Children with this disorder are self-conscious, and self-doubting, look to meet other people’s expectations, and seek constant reassurance and approval from adults.

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): Closely related to Generalized anxiety disorder, OCD ranks amongst the most common anxiety disorder in young children, with one in every 200 children displaying this type of anxiety. This disorder entails recurrent intrusive unwanted irrational or unrealistic thoughts or obsessions that develop into intense fear. OCD interferes with the child’s normal routine, studies, social activities, and relationships. The symptoms of OCD are the same as that of generalized anxiety disorder.

  • Separation Anxiety: All children who move away from familiar places or surroundings undergo separation anxiety such as unrealistic worry about potential harm or the fear that their loved ones will not return home. The persistence of such anxiety for more than four weeks usually indicates anxiety disorder. Symptoms of separation anxiety include the child clinging or crying on separation, reluctance to sleep alone, refusal to attend school, stomach ache and headache. Children with separation anxiety become afraid to stay at a friend’s place and attend birthday parties without parents.

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A child exposed to sudden or periodic traumatic events such as death, serious injury, accident, natural disaster and assault may experience post-traumatic stress disorder characterized by intense fear, helplessness, or horror. Such children re-experience traumatic event as thoughts, feelings, or dreams and avoid people, places, and things that serve as reminders. The child also finds it difficult to remember details or concentrate. They develop heightened arousal, become easily startled and can become irritable and jumpy and suffer from angry outbursts and insomnia.

  • Social Phobia or agoraphobia is another common type of anxiety disorder in young children. Extreme shyness and fear of unfamiliar social situations characterize this phobia, and lead to the child’s inability to participate in most social situations. Children with social phobia at times develop panic disorder, or develop sudden feelings of unexpected terror with accompanying symptoms such as pounding heart, sweating, trembling, chest pain, nausea, shortness of breath, choking sensation, dizziness, detachment, fear of losing control, fear of dying, and numbness.

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The causes of anxiety disorders amongst children are a complex interaction of genetic, biological, behavioral, and physiological factors with ecological and environmental factors related to the child.

  • Biological Causes: Possible causes of anxiety disorders in young children are neurochemical factors such as abnormal function of serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and GABA.
  • Behavioral Causes: The root cause of anxiety disorders in young children may be the acquisition of fear through classical conditioning, and maintenance of such fear through operant conditioning. Children may either experience the anxiety provoking condition through a natural stimulus, or learn about anxiety-provoking situations by observing others experience such situations.
  • Physiological Causes: Selective exposure to information and situations, and the tendency of the brain to remember only the anxiety-provoking cues or experiences from the sum total of the experience is another cause of anxiety disorders in young children.
  • Ecological causes: Environmental or ecological causes contributing to anxiety disorders in young children include an insecure parent-child attachment, controlling parenting style and traumatic events related to the child.


Anxiety Disorders in Young Children

The best treatment option for children with anxiety disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This method has various approaches, and generally involves exposing the child to frightening objects or situations in a graduating manner, and rewarding the child for success in facing fears.

Other approaches include:

  • Modeling, or making the anxious child emulate the therapist or another child who shows no fear.
  • Group therapy, which helps shy and fearful children try new kinds of behavior to make friends and increase self-confidence.
  • Play therapy, which entails helping young children recognize and express fears using toys, puppets, and drawings.
  • Psychodynamic therapy which involves counseling to help children understand the sources of their anxiety.
  • Systematic desensitization, which involves teaching the child to relax, and then presenting an anxiety-provoking stimuli, under the assumption that relaxation is incompatible with fear response.

Medications remains an effective alternative, but generally adopted as a last resort for anxiety disorders in children.

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  1. Floyd R. Sallee. “Anxiety and Stress Disorders (Children).” Retrieved from https://www.netwellness.uc.edu/healthtopics/anxiety/introduction.cfm on 14 November 2010
  2. The Pennsylvania Child Welfare Training Program. “Anxiety & Related Disorders in Children & Adolescents.” Retrieved from https://www.pacwcbt.pitt.edu/Curriculum/303CaseworkwithChildren_AnxietyandRelatedDisordersinChildrenandAdolescents/Overheads/OH2EightCategoriesofAnxietyDisorders.pdf on 14 November 2010.
  3. The Harvard Medical School. Family Health Guide. “Children’s Fears and Anxieties.” Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/update0105c.shtml on 14 November 2010