Children and Adolescents With Anxiety Disorders
What are anxiety disorders?
Children and adolescents with anxiety disorders typically experience intense fear, worry, or uneasiness that can last for long periods of time and significantly affect their lives. If not treated early, anxiety disorders can lead to:
- Repeated school absences or an inability to finish school;
- Impaired relations with peers;
- Low self-esteem;
- Alcohol or other drug use;
- Problems adjusting to work situations; and
- Anxiety disorder in adulthood.
What are the types and signs of anxiety disorders?
Many different anxiety disorders affect children and adolescents. Several disorders and their signs are described below:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Children and adolescents with generalized anxiety disorder engage in extreme, unrealistic worry about everyday life activities. They worry unduly about their academic performance, sporting activities, or even about being on time. Typically, these young people are very self-conscious, feel tense, and have a strong need for reassurance. They may complain about stomachaches or other discomforts that do not appear to have any physical cause.
Separation Anxiety Disorder: Children with separation anxiety disorder often have difficulty leaving their parents to attend school or camp, stay at a friend's house, or be alone. Often, they "cling" to parents and have trouble falling asleep. Separation anxiety disorder may be accompanied by depression, sadness, withdrawal, or fear that a family member might die. About one in every 25 children experiences separation anxiety disorder.1
Phobias: Children and adolescents with phobias have unrealistic and excessive fears of certain situations or objects. Many phobias have specific names, and the disorder usually centers on animals, storms, water, heights, or situations, such as being in an enclosed space. Children and adolescents with social phobias are terrified of being criticized or judged harshly by others. Young people with phobias will try to avoid the objects and situations they fear, so the disorder can greatly restrict their lives.
Panic Disorder: Repeated "panic attacks" in children and adolescents without an apparent cause are signs of a panic disorder. Panic attacks are periods of intense fear accompanied by a pounding heartbeat, sweating, dizziness, nausea, or a feeling of imminent death. The experience is so scary that young people live in dread of another attack. Children and adolescents with the disorder may go to great lengths to avoid situations that may bring on a panic attack. They also may not want to go to school or to be separated from their parents.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Children and adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder, sometimes called OCD, become trapped in a pattern of repetitive thoughts and behaviors. Even though they may recognize that the thoughts or behaviors appear senseless and distressing, the pattern is very hard to stop. Compulsive behaviors may include repeated hand washing, counting, or arranging and rearranging objects. About two in every 100 adolescents experience obsessive-compulsive disorder (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1999).
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Children and adolescents can develop post-traumatic stress disorder after they experience a very stressful event. Such events may include experiencing physical or sexual abuse; being a victim of or witnessing violence; or living through a disaster, such as a bombing or hurricane. Young people with post-traumatic stress disorder experience the event over and over through strong memories, flashbacks, or other kinds of troublesome thoughts. As a result, they may try to avoid anything associated with the trauma. They also may overreact when startled or have difficulty sleeping.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Mental Health Information Center.