Childhood Anxiety: Types, Support, and Strategies for Parents  

By Victoria Kennedy, Ph.D. 

The Many Faces of Anxiety in Children 

While anxiety is a normal part of life, some children experience anxiety that is so serious that it can be diagnosed as a disorder. A child may have an anxiety disorder if their anxiety does not go away in a reasonable amount of time (or is recurrent), is unrealistic, and makes them start avoiding things in their lives. Also, many children show physical signs of anxiety, such as headaches, stomachaches, or nausea. Here are some different types of anxiety disorders in children:  

Separation Anxiety 

Separation anxiety is common in young children and typically surfaces around the age of 6 months to 4 years. This form of anxiety usually goes away as the child grows older and gains more independence. However, if the anxiety continues to persist and the child shows intense distress when separated from parents, this could reflect the presence of Separation Anxiety Disorder. These children often worry about their parents getting sick or dying, and show a strong reluctance to attend school.  

Specific Phobias 

Specific phobias are when a child expresses excessive and irrational fears of specific objects, situations, or creatures. While it’s normal for children to have fears (like fear of the dark or fear of insects), specific phobias become a concern when they significantly impact the child’s life. 

Social Anxiety Disorder 

Social Anxiety Disorder, also referred to as Social Phobia, involves intense fear of social situations. Children with this disorder may avoid social gatherings, show a lot of self-consciousness in social situations, have difficulty making friends, or feel extremely uncomfortable when asked to speak or perform in public. 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder 

Children with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) display a lot of worry and fear about many aspects of their daily life, including school performance, health, safety, and social acceptance. They may show extreme perfectionism and have trouble sleeping due to their worries. The worry is often disproportionate to the actual situation and can interfere with the child’s normal activities.  

Panic Disorder 

Panic Disorder is characterized by recurrent, unexpected panic attacks. These anxiety attacks are often accompanied by intense fear and physical symptoms such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, dizziness, or trembling. 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder 

Children with OCD experience unwanted thoughts called obsessions. They often also develop repetitive compulsions, which help calm the anxiety caused by their obsessions. These children often express worry about doing something “wrong” or “bad,” repeatedly ask for reassurance from their parents, and/or engage in repetitive behaviors (such as washing their hands over and over). 

Causes of Anxiety in Children 

Anxiety in children can stem from a variety of sources. Some children may have a predisposition towards anxiety due to their genetics or temperament. Certain stressful life events, such as moving to a new school or house, losing a loved one, or experiencing a traumatic event, can also trigger anxiety. 

Biological Factors 

Children who have a family history of anxiety disorders may be more prone to developing them. If a parent or sibling has an anxiety disorder, the child may be more likely to exhibit anxious behaviors. 

Environmental Factors 

Changes in environment or routine can be stressful for children and may lead to anxiety. This could include moving to a new home, changing schools, or dealing with parents’ divorce. Bullying, neglect, or abuse can also contribute to anxiety in children. 

Societal Factors 

Pressure from peers and societal expectations can also lead to anxiety in children. Children may feel anxious about fitting in, performing well in school or sports, or meeting the expectations of parents and teachers. 

How to Talk with Your Child about Their Anxiety 

Discussing anxiety can be difficult, especially when dealing with young children who may not fully understand their feelings. Here are some strategies to help talk with your child about their feelings: 

  • Normalize their feelings: Reassure your child that feeling anxious or scared at times is a normal part of life. Everyone experiences fear and anxiety, and it’s okay to talk about these feelings. 
  • Listen to their concerns: Give your child the opportunity to express their worries. Don’t dismiss their fears, no matter how irrational they may seem. Show empathy and understanding when you talk with your child but try to not to let your child avoid things they are afraid of. 
  • Provide reassurance: Let your child know that you’re there for them. Ensure them that they’re safe and that you’re there to help them get through their fears. 
  • Teach them coping strategies: Teach your child relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises or mindfulness practices. These can help them manage their anxiety and regain a sense of control when they are feeling especially anxious. 

Strategies to Support Anxious Children 

Anxiety disorders can be treated successfully with the right support and strategies. As a parent, your role is crucial in helping your child navigate through their anxiety. Here are some strategies to help: 

  • Establish a routine: Consistent routines can provide a sense of security for anxious children. It helps them know what to expect and reduces uncertainty, which can be a trigger for anxiety. 
  • Encourage physical activity: Regular exercise can help reduce anxiety by boosting mood and acting as a natural stress reliever. Encourage your child to participate in physical activities daily and spend time outside! 
  • Promote good sleep habits: Lack of sleep can make anxiety worse. Establish a regular sleep schedule and create a positive sleep environment to ensure your child gets enough rest. 
  • Maintain a balanced diet: Eating a well-balanced diet can also help manage anxiety. Limit sugary and processed foods, which can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar levels and potentially increase feelings of anxiety. 
  • Model coping: Talk calmly with your child and explain how you as a parent effectively cope with stress or anxiety. 
  • Develop coping statements: Help your child come up with statements they can tell themselves when they are scared or anxious, such as “I’m strong and I can handle this.” 
  • Coping for tomorrow: This is when you work with your child to plan coping strategies for specified anxious events (such as giving a presentation in front of the class).   
  • Seek professional help: If your child’s anxiety continues to persist or worsens over time, it may be helpful to seek professional help. A mental health professional can provide a thorough evaluation and recommend appropriate treatment options, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or medication. 

Seeking Professional Help 

If your child’s anxiety interferes with their daily life, it’s important to seek professional help. This could involve: 

  • Consulting a healthcare provider: Your child’s primary care provider or a mental health professional can conduct an evaluation to diagnose an anxiety disorder. They can also provide guidance on appropriate treatment options. 
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of psychotherapy that can help children learn coping skills to manage their anxiety. It involves teaching children to identify their fears and anxieties, understand their thought patterns, and develop strategies to cope with anxiety-provoking situations. 
  • Considering medication therapy: In some cases, medication may be recommended as part of the treatment plan. Several types of medications, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), have been shown to be effective in treating anxiety disorders in children. 

The Journey Ahead: Living with Anxiety 

Living with anxiety can be challenging, but with the right support and treatment, children can learn to manage their symptoms and lead fulfilling lives. Early intervention is key in managing anxiety disorders in children, so if you suspect your child is dealing with anxiety, don’t hesitate to seek help. Remember, every child is unique, and what works for one might not work for another. With understanding, patience, and the right support, your child can learn to manage their anxiety and thrive.