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Anxiety In Children | Helping Comfort Kids

Experiencing anxiety is a normal part of life and at times can even be helpful. However, for many people, when those feelings of anxiety can become too prevalent in their daily life it can cause a myriad of problems such as inhibition, avoidance of certain people and places as well as manifestations of physical symptoms. In children, these experiences of anxiety can be even worse because younger children may not fully grasp what is happening and why these feelings occur.

So how does a parent determine whether the anxiety that a child is experiencing is just some normal jitters on the first day of school or something more that needs to be addressed? The key is to know what characteristics to look out for and understand the differences between normal situational anxiety and the types that are more intense or persistent.

Types and Symptoms of Anxiety and When is it a Problem?

Anxiety triggers can and will happen to all children at some point in time. Situations such as meeting new peers, the first time they are away from parents, or even changes in routine can cause feelings of instability and fear.  The difference between what can be considered normal anxiety and that of the more severe variety is that in the former the child can overcome those feelings and know that it will be ok and in the latter, the anxiety causes such a level of discomfort that the child begins to fear any circumstances where those emotions may be triggered.

There are various different types of anxiety that tend to stem from whatever the root cause of the fear is. Some of the most common in children are:

Separation anxiety

Many babies and children face some type of separation anxiety when first being apart from a parent but typically they become more comfortable with the new situation once they get used to the temporary caretaker and they see that the parent always returns. However, when a child never overcomes this fear of separation it can become a disorder. As the child ages, this inherent fear can lead to overly clingy behavior with one or both parents, as well as potential tantrums or outright refusal to attend school, sleepovers with peers or other activities when the parent is not in attendance. Often the child struggles with extreme fears about their parents’ safety and possibly being abandoned and can manifest physical symptoms such as stomach issues and insomnia.

Social Anxiety

Social anxiety disorder occurs when a child has a fear of interacting with peers and meeting new people. Often children who are shy or more introverted can be confused as socially anxious. However, in those cases, it may not be an issue that they are afraid to talk and socialize with others, rather that it can be physically and mentally taxing from an over-stimulation standpoint. With social anxiety, there is an inherent fear of judgment that makes the child avoid situations where they feel vulnerable to others’ opinions of them. These fears often become so extreme that complete avoidance of social events is quite common. Other behaviors that are often seen with socially anxious children are stuttering or speaking quickly to others and having few if any friends outside of family members.

Generalized Anxiety

Children with Generalized anxiety disorder don’t have one specific fear that leads to anxiety but often many. It can be particularly frustrating for them because they may not always know why they are anxious or what is causing it but they often have to deal with just a constant feeling of being on edge. Since there is never a break for their body to rest from this state of heightened awareness it is quite common for children with Generalized Anxiety Disorder to feel lethargic and restless. In addition to this, difficulties with concentration and insomnia are standard symptoms to look out for.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder tends to be an accompaniment to other types of anxiety disorders but lends itself to more physical symptoms. When panic occurs it leads to what is known as an anxiety attack. These attacks occur when the anxiety becomes too extreme and leads to abrupt physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and a “pins and needles” sensation that spreads to the limbs and face. These attacks are more prevalent in teens than small children but can be an absolutely terrifying experience, especially the first time one occurs and they don’t know what is happening.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Children who struggle with Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) try to find relief from their anxiety by following self-imposed rules that must be completed in order to feel at ease.  Many often think that obsession and compulsions are one and the same but what typically happens is that someone will be fighting against obsessive thoughts and in order to tame the obsession they will need to perform an action or ritual to keep the obsession at bay though only temporarily. This becomes a cycle where the obsession forces the compulsive action but OCD can be diagnosed with just an obsessive component or compulsive component separately.

Specific Phobias

It is universal to have some type of fear. Whether it be spiders, heights, loud noises, or being scared of the dark. This is all a part of being human but the trouble comes when a specific fear starts to cause distress in day-to-day activities. This is when a fear becomes a phobia. Phobias are extreme fears that are attached to a specific thing, person, or situation. When phobias occur, it becomes difficult for a child to be comforted or put at ease when facing the subject of the fear. It will get to the point where the child will do anything to avoid being confronted with it because it brings such significant anxiety.

What Causes Anxiety Disorders?

It is completely understandable that a parent will be distressed in seeing their child suffering and wondering if the anxiety could have somehow been prevented. However, there are several factors that cause anxiety to happen and it’s almost impossible to pinpoint any exact reason why it happens to some and not others. Many children may be genetically predisposed to anxiety, there could be chemical imbalances that require medication to address, while others may become anxious from traumatic life experiences such as a sudden loss or abuse. Often it can be a combination of things that would make the focus on prevention extremely difficult.

How is Anxiety Diagnosed and Treated?

Anxiety disorders are diagnosed by therapists who will refer to the DSM-5, which is the standard method of classifying mental health disorders. The therapist will talk with the child and ask questions to better understand the struggles they go through and take notes while listening to make a proper diagnosis. Once a diagnosis has been established, the therapist may recommend an appointment with a psychiatrist if they feel medication may be helpful to address a potential chemical imbalance in the brain but this may happen more often with teens. For children, a common way to treat anxiety is with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT is a type of therapy that focuses on talking and gaining skills to retrain harmful thought patterns that lead to anxiety. CBT teaches children that their actions and thoughts directly affect how they feel and that exposure to their fears makes the fear itself less intimidating over time.

How Can I as a Parent Help My Child?

As a parent, there are many ways to help soothe your child when they are struggling with anxiety. The first step would be to find a trained therapist and work with them to learn ways to assist your child that goes along with the methods taught in therapy. Talk with your child when they are upset and listen to their concerns. Tell them that you understand and work to build a connection that shows them that coming to you is a safe and helpful option. There may be times when it feels like progress is one step forward and two steps back but patience is key since it can take time for therapy and new skills to become effective.

How Solace Therapists Help Challenge Anxiety

At Solace our goal is to help children meet their goals and thrive both on the inside and out. Our clinicians work with families and other therapists to help ensure that a cohesive strategy is used to create a safe and familiar environment. This lessens a child’s anxiety so whether it be occupational, speech, or physical therapy, the child can focus on progress without fear!

Please contact us at 303-432-8487 option 1 or if you are interested in more information or if you would like to schedule therapy for your child.

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