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Anxiety is a highly prevalent mental health condition that can affect children just as commonly as adults. It is essential to recognize the symptoms and seek appropriate treatment for children. Here is an overview of anxiety in children.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness or fear that is often a normal reaction to perceived danger. Children, like adults, can suffer from various forms of anxiety disorders. It can become a problem when these feelings are constant, overwhelming or disproportionate to the situation, affecting daily life and well-being.

Anxiety can manifest itself through both physical and psychological symptoms, including heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, upset stomach, difficulty concentrating, irritability and sleep problems. There are different types of anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), each with its specific characteristics and symptoms.

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What causes anxiety in children?

Children can develop anxiety for many different reasons, often involving a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors. Here are some of the most common reasons why children may experience anxiety:

Biological factors

Anxiety can have a genetic component. Children whose parents have anxiety disorders are at a higher risk of developing anxiety. Additionally, imbalances in brain neurotransmitters can affect a person’s emotions and cause anxiety.

  • Brain chemistry: Imbalances in brain neurotransmitters can affect a person’s emotions and cause anxiety.

Psychological factors

Certain factors may increase the likelihood of a child developing anxiety. For example, children who have a naturally cautious or sensitive temperament may be more prone to anxiety. Additionally, children who tend to think negatively, interpret situations as threatening, or focus on potential negative outcomes may also be at a higher risk for anxiety.

  • Negative thinking patterns: Children who tend to interpret situations as threatening or focus on what could go wrong may be more likely to experience anxiety.

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Environmental factors

Experiencing stress at home or school due to family conflicts, divorce, bullying, or high expectations can be overwhelming and lead to anxiety. Traumatic events like abuse, accidents, or loss can also trigger anxiety disorders. Even positive life changes, such as moving to a new home or starting a new school, can be stressful and cause anxiety in some children.

  • Traumatic events: Experiences of loss, abuse, accidents or other traumatic events can trigger anxiety disorders.
  • Life changes: Even positive changes, such as starting a new school or moving to a new home, can be stressful and cause anxiety in some children.

Learned behaviors

Children can learn anxious behaviours by observing and imitating significant adults in their lives who display anxiety-related behaviours.

Social and cultural factors

Social pressure, including peer pressure, social media, and cultural expectations, can influence a child’s experience of anxiety.

  • Cultural expectations: Cultural norms and values can also influence children’s experience of anxiety.

It is important to remember that anxiety is a complex condition, and each child’s experience is unique. Understanding the underlying causes is essential in providing the proper support and treatment. If a child shows signs of anxiety, talking to a psychologist or doctor can help identify the causes and design an effective treatment plan.

Signs of anxiety in children

Anxiety in children can be more challenging to identify than in adults because children often have difficulty expressing their feelings and the reasons for them. Here are some common signs of anxiety in children:

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Physical signs

  • Stomachaches or headaches: Unexplained stomach or headaches can be signs of anxiety.
  • Sleeping problems: Difficulty falling asleep, nightmares or nocturnal awakenings.
  • Changes in appetite: Increased or decreased appetite may be associated with anxiety.
  • Trembling or muscle tension: Children may show physical nervousness or stress.

Emotional and behavioural signs

  • Excessive worry: Worry about things common to the child’s age or developmental level.
  • Irritability: Children with anxiety may be more irritable or tearful than usual.
  • Avoidance behaviours: Avoid situations or activities they previously enjoyed, often because of fear or worry.
  • Need for reassurance: Repeatedly seeking confirmation from adults that everything is okay.
  • Clinginess: Younger children may become more clingy or have difficulty separating from parents or caregivers.

Cognitive signs

  • Difficulty concentrating: The child may have trouble focusing at school or during other activities.
  • Negative thoughts: Increased frequency of negative or catastrophic thoughts about what might happen.

Social signs

  • Social withdrawal: Withdrawing from peers and social interactions.
  • Performance anxiety: Worry about not meeting expectations in school or other activities.

It is essential to understand that all children experience anxiety from time to time, and it is a normal part of growing up. However, when stress interferes with a child’s daily functioning or causes significant suffering, it is time to seek professional help. A child psychologist or child psychiatrist can offer assessment and treatment that can help the child manage their anxiety healthily.

How to support children with anxiety

Listening to and validating a child’s feelings is crucial in offering support. Creating regulated daily routines can provide a sense of security and predictability. Teaching relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises or mindfulness, can help a child manage anxiety. Encouraging physical activity is also effective in reducing anxiety. If necessary, seeking professional help from a child psychologist can provide tools and strategies adapted to the child’s needs.

  • Create routines: Regulated daily routines provide a sense of security and predictability.
  • Teach relaxation techniques: Breathing exercises or mindfulness can help the child manage anxiety.
  • Encourage physical activity: Exercise is effective in reducing anxiety.
  • Seek professional help: A child psychologist can offer tools and strategies adapted to the child.

Treatment for anxiety in children

Treatment for anxiety in children is individualized and often involves a combination of therapeutic methods, education and support for both the child and the family. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is at the heart of many treatment programs, where the child learns to identify, challenge and change anxiety-inducing thoughts and behaviours. Education about anxiety helps the child and their family understand what anxiety is and how it affects them.

Parent education is also an essential part of the process, where parents learn strategies to support their child effectively without reinforcing the anxiety. In some cases, family therapy may also be recommended to address the dynamics within the family that may affect the child’s anxiety.

School-based interventions may be implemented to provide the child with additional support in their learning environment. In specific cases, medication may be considered as part of the treatment, especially when the anxiety is severe and does not respond adequately to therapeutic interventions.

The treatment process includes regular evaluations to ensure that it meets the child’s needs and is adjusted if necessary. Collaboration between therapists, doctors, parents and school staff is essential to give the child the best possible support and opportunities for recovery.

12 FAQs about Anxiety in Children

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness or fear that is often a normal reaction to perceiving something as dangerous. Children, like adults, can suffer from different types of anxiety disorders.

Are there different anxiety disorders that children can have?

There are different types of anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety, specific phobias, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which can also affect children.

What causes anxiety in children?

Children can develop anxiety for many different reasons, often involving a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors.

What are the signs of anxiety in children?

Anxiety in children can manifest itself through physical symptoms such as stomach pain and sleep problems, emotional signs such as excessive worry and irritability, cognitive challenges such as difficulty concentrating, and social changes such as withdrawal, making it essential to pay attention to these varying signals.

My child has anxiety. What can I do?

To support children with anxiety, listen and validate their feelings, create predictable routines, teach relaxation techniques, encourage physical activity, and seek professional help for tailored strategies.

How do we treat anxiety in children?

Treatment of anxiety in children involves individualized therapy, mainly through CBT, and education to teach children and families to understand and manage the effects of stress.

How long is a treatment?

Treatment is tailored to the nature of the child or parent’s problem. It can be anything from a few sessions to more prolonged therapy over a few years.

What is CBT?

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based therapy that helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviours contributing to ill health.

What is a child psychologist?

A child psychologist is a trained professional with knowledge and experience in well-being and mental health. They offer therapy and counselling and work with families in parental support and the whole family when needed. They also collaborate with schools to create good conditions for the child.

Can I see a child psychologist privately?

It is possible to see a child psychologist privately. At Lavendla, we have several psychologists with extensive experience working with children and young people.

Can I see a child psychologist online?

At Lavendla, all our child psychologists work digitally.

Where can I go if I or my child needs help from a child psychologist?

At Lavendla, we have experienced child psychologists who can also help.

How can treatment for anxiety in children work?

Seeking help from a child psychologist is a crucial step when a child is experiencing mental health difficulties. Here is a brief overview of what treatment can look like:

Initial consultation: This is the first step of treatment, in which the psychologist assesses the child’s and parents’ needs through conversations.

Treatment plan: An individualized plan is developed based on the child’s specific situation and needs.

Types of therapy: Common methods include play therapy for younger children, where play is used for expression and processing, and talk therapy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for older children, which focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviours.

Parental counselling: Parents receive guidance and support to help their child better at home.

Monitoring and adjustment: The treatment plan is continuously evaluated to ensure the best possible outcome.

It is important to remember that each child is unique, so treatment may vary. Working with a child psychologist can give you and your child the tools to manage your emotions and behaviours healthily. At Lavendla, we have child psychologists who can help make the hard stuff easier.

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Written by samantha

Sr. Samantha Pieterse is a registered psychiatric nurse who is deeply committed to mental health and well-being. Samantha brings a unique and valuable perspective to her role as an editor for Lavendla South Africa. She has worked in Government and Private mental healthcare institutions in Gauteng and her expertise ensures that the articles on our website are accurate and accessible. Samantha is dedicated to enhancing mental health awareness and education in South Africa.