Have you noticed that your child is complaining of stomach pain and headaches? Or perhaps they seem tired and irritable despite getting the correct amount of sleep? Perhaps these things are simply coincidental, but maybe they’re not. Did you know that even children suffer from anxiety disorder? In fact, the most common mental health condition in children is anxiety disorder. If you are sensing that there may be something else going on, keep reading.
Our Personal Journey With Child Anxiety Disorder
My son was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder at the age of 7. The combination of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms he displayed at both home and school-led us to seek out a professional diagnosis and treatment plan. We used cognitive behavioral therapy methods to help him learn how his feelings would give him clues that his body was in severe “fight or flight” mode. We wanted him to learn that he had the power to use coping strategies to make better decisions on how to tackle his anxiety.
While having coping strategies in place is necessary, it is not a quick fix. We have had to be committed to the plan and process by working together with doctors and professional mental health practitioners to help my son learn lifelong skills. Some of the behavioral techniques that we use daily in our home include modeling appropriate behaviors, role-playing, and relaxation techniques such as meditation and prayer.
What We Decided Was Best for Our Son
Eventually, after much deliberation with medical professionals, we did use medication to treat some major symptoms that he was experiencing during a family move. However, this was a short period, and the medication was used in conjunction with psychotherapy and under strict oversight by a physician.
Ultimately, we realized that the classroom and his associated learning disabilities made going to school almost impossible for my son. In the 4th grade, we decided that the home environment for learning would be the best way for him to learn. So at age 10, we began homeschooling. This simple shift in the environment has created an opportunity for our son to thrive in both learning and overcoming his anxiety and disabilities.
Every family’s journey with pediatric anxiety disorders is different. Similarly, each family will have a unique treatment plan. The first step for any family, however, is learning more about anxiety disorder in children.
What is Anxiety Disorder?
The Anxiety Disorders Association of America characterizes anxiety disorder as “a persistent, irrational, and overwhelming worry, fear, and anxiety that interfere with daily activities. These are real disorders that affect how the brain functions. Symptoms vary, but they can include irritability, sleeplessness, bitterness, or physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches.”
Anxiety disorders are caused by a combination of biological and environmental factors, similar to allergies and diabetes. Stressful events such as starting school, moving, or losing a parent or grandparent can trigger the onset of an anxiety disorder. However, stress itself does not cause an anxiety disorder.
Types of Anxiety Disorders
Here is a list of some of the most common types of anxiety disorders.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) causes kids to worry almost every day and over lots of things. GAD may make it hard for kids to relax and have fun, eat well, or fall asleep at night. They may miss many days of school because worry makes them feel sick, afraid, or tired.
Some examples of the “over worrying” that a child with GAD may include are:
- Worrying about recess
- Birthday parties
- Playtime with friends
- Riding the school bus
- War or current events
- Loved ones
- Getting hurt
Social anxiety may sometimes be referred to as social phobia. It is described as an intense fear of social and performance situations and activities. Think here of a child who is terrified of getting on stage in front of many people during a play or skit. This type of disorder can lead to poor school performance and attendance and the ability to socialize with peers and develop and maintain relationships.
Separation anxiety is commonly experienced between the ages of 18 months and three years old when it is normal to feel some anxiety when a parent leaves the room or goes out of sight. It is common for your child to cry when initially being left at daycare or preschool. Crying usually subsides after being distracted or becoming engaged in their new place. Professionals warn that if your child is slightly older and unable to leave you for a known friend or family member, or if it takes longer than expected to calm down after you leave than other children, then the problem could be separation anxiety disorder.
A phobia is the intense, irrational fear of a specific object—things such as a dog, or a particular situation, like swimming. Fears are common in childhood and often go away. A phobia is diagnosed if the fear persists for at least six months and interferes with a child’s daily routine, such as refusing to play outdoors for fear of encountering a dog. Children will avoid situations or things that they fear. Or they endure them with anxious feelings, which may show up as crying, tantrums, clinging, avoidance, headaches, and stomachaches. Unlike adults, children do not usually recognize that their fear is irrational. So parents need to recognize the behavior and support them.
What to Look For?
What ultimately led me to the doctor’s office was my mother’s instinct. I knew that something was not right and that my child was not simply trying to manipulate and be difficult just for the sake of doing so. I want parents to know that tapping into their own instincts is key despite all of the google searching and experts discussing the topic.
What makes identifying an anxiety disorder difficult to spot is the fact that the symptoms are often internal. Many children have trouble expressing anxiety as the source of their distress, so it is likely to show up in various ways.
Sometimes the physical “fight or flight response” that accompanies intense anxiety moments can show up both physically and emotionally. In my son, we saw these arise as early as two years of age. Of course, I had no way of knowing at that time what we would be dealing with.
- Rapid heart rate
- Quick breathing or difficulty catching one’s breath
- Muscle aches (especially stomach and headaches)
- Shaking, dizziness, tingling
- Ongoing worries about friends, school, or activities
- Worrying about things before they happen
- A need for everything to be “perfect”
- Constant thoughts and fears about safety (of self or others, such as parents and siblings)
- Reluctance or refusal to go to school
- “Clingy” behavior with parents
- Inability to concentrate
- Irritability and having trouble relaxing
- Trouble sleeping
How to Get Your Child Help?
In the case of childhood anxiety, your child is typically the first source of information when it comes to moving toward a diagnosis. It is important to pay particular attention and listen carefully to them when discussing fears and worries. It is important to report your findings to health professionals such as a psychologist or pediatrician for guidance if you are concerned.
In the meantime, the Association of Pediatrics recommends asking yourself the following questions:
- Is your child excessively worried or anxious about several situations or activities?
- Does anxiety lead to restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and/or sleep disturbance?
- Has your child’s anxiety or outward symptoms significantly impair his/her social, academic, or other functioning?
- Does the anxiety occur more days than not and continue for a significant duration? (Have your child’s anxiety symptoms lasted for at least 6 months? Do the bouts of anxiety occur at least 3 to 5 times per week and last for at least an hour?)
- Did your child experience developmental delays or severe anxiety at being separated from a parent, express frequent or numerous fears, or experience unusual stress?
- Have others in the family been diagnosed with anxiety disorders?
Anxiety disorders tend to run in families, but this is not always the case. A careful review of your family’s medical history may provide insight into your child’s condition. The presence of anxiety disorder symptoms may indicate a need to have your child evaluated by his/her pediatrician or mental health provider.
What Are Some of the Common Treatments?
The key is to recognize the symptoms and seek medical advice sooner than later. Treatment for anxiety disorder relies on a combination of approaches geared specifically to the particular child and their unique diagnosis.
My advice to parents is to become extremely educated about the disorder so that you can find ways to help your child and create success at both home and school. The most common ways to treat anxiety disorder include cognitive-behavioral techniques and traditional psychotherapy, family therapy, and medication management. There are many opinions around taking the medication and non-medication approach. It is necessary to be very clear on these options and weigh them out with a professional. Only you can decide what is best for your child and your family.
Behavior therapies tend to be amongst the most proven and effective non-medication treatments for anxiety disorders. Behavior therapies concentrate on creating awareness and changing the child’s behaviors caused by the anxiety rather than focusing on the child’s internal conflicts (like bellyaches and headaches). When a child learns how to identify anxious feelings and thoughts, recognize how their body responds to anxiety (sometimes physical pain), and devises a plan to regulate the symptoms as they appear, they gain coping strategies that allow them to be confident in overcoming the symptoms of anxiety. This method is what worked best for my son. And we can communicate this to our support systems such as family, babysitters, coaches, and teachers.
Hope for the Future
Although having my seven-year-old child diagnosed with an anxiety disorder was unexpected, I can look back and realize that the signs were there. But I had no idea that his little body was struggling to process his emotions and fears. Today, my son is almost 11 years old and is well aware of the issues in dealing with anxiety. He can often rely on the coping strategies that he has learned to help him through difficult situations. He knows how to recognize his symptoms and ask for help when he needs it.
Here’s my advice: the sooner your child is properly treated for anxiety, the sooner he or she can improve their functioning and balance in their daily life. When a child shows signs of anxiety, we tend to think that it will “go away” on its own or that the child will outgrow it. But when it is intense and interfering with a child’s life, it is important to get help. My journey has led me to help others to see the value in recognizing this disorder. And helping families understand that they can manage, cope, and have a positive outcome.