Children and adolescents with anxiety disorders typically experience excessive anxiety, worry, and/or fear that is difficult to control, and interferes with their day to day functioning. The following are the anxiety disorders most often seen in children and adolescents:
Children and adolescents with Panic Disorder experience repeated, unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is a period of intense fear that is accompanied by symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, dizziness, shortness of breath, and fear of dying. Children and adolescents who suffer from panic attacks often avoid certain situations due to the fear that a panic attack will occur.
Children and adolescents with phobias experience intense fear and anxiety related to specific objects or situations. Fear and avoidance of the object or situation often interferes with the child’s daily functioning.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder:
Children and adolescents with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) experience excessive anxiety and worry that is difficult to control. This anxiety and worry is usually out of proportion with the likelihood that a feared situation or event will occur. For example, anxiety may be associated with academic performance, even though the child is doing well in school. Observable symptoms of GAD include difficulty concentrating, restlessness, irritability, and sleep difficulties. Children and adolescents with GAD may also present with physical complaints such as recurring headaches.
Separation Anxiety Disorder:
Children with Separation Anxiety Disorder experience extreme anxiety when they are separated from the home, or from significant attachment figures. This level of distress is beyond that which would be expected given the child’s developmental level. Situations that typically cause anxiety include attending school, spending the night at a friend’s house, or going to bed alone. Children with this disorder often fear that something bad will happen to the parent (or other attachment figure) should they become separated.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 13 of every 100 children and adolescents experience some type of anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders tend to affect girls at a higher rate than boys.
Diagnosing Anxiety Disorders:
When a child presents with symptoms of anxiety, a physical exam with a pediatrician is important, in order to rule out a medical cause. Once this has been completed, a comprehensive mental health evaluation can be conducted in order to assess the child’s background, symptoms, and behaviors, and determine an accurate diagnosis.
The course of treatment for an anxiety disorder depends upon the nature and severity of the disorder. In most cases, individual and family therapy may be recommended. Specific interventions that are effective in treating anxiety include cognitive-behavioral therapy, relaxation training, and exercises involving visual imagery and role-play. In some cases, a referral to a child psychiatrist may be necessary, in order to determine the need for psychotropic medication.