It can be difficult as a parent of an anxious child to know whether the behavior of an anxious child is fairly typical of their age or whether it is sufficiently out of line to border on a disorder.
If the child begins to exhibit symptoms of anxiety such as feeling sick before school in the morning, or becomes withdrawn and doesn’t seem to bother with friends, then there may be an anxiety problem. It used to be thought that children didn’t really suffer depression or anxiety in the real sense, but was perhaps just attention seeking or malingering. It is now recognized that children normally have fears and misgivings as they develop and a certain degree of anxiety is to be expected, but, in some cases it can be excessive and interfere with normal daily life.
Children can suffer strong emotions and fears that are entirely illogical. The more common fears of being separated from their parent or afraid of the dark usually diminish and fade as the child develops and are not therefore of great concern to the parent.
When children reach school age and mix with other children they usually integrate without problem. If a child is unwilling to mix, is excessively shy or timid, has nightmares often, or repeated tummy aches, then this may indicate an excess of anxiety.
The teenage years can be particularly fraught as the child comes to terms with the physical changes of adolescence plus the hormonal changes which can often lead to mood swings. For most adolescents the feelings of uncertainty, turmoil and unhappiness that are part of adolescence don’t mean they will go on to experience more serious problems at all. These feelings are gradually put into perspective as maturity develops.
The causes of anxiety in a young person can one or more of a number, some of them are discussed below by Helene Goldnadel:
- There may be a genetic or family tendency towards anxiety.
- There may be some physical illness or disability.
- There may be family problems. Constant rows between parents or a divorce situation can be extremely distressing for a child and undermine normal feelings of security. The use of excessive threats by parents can also make a child feel unwanted and depressed.
- There may be problems at school such as bullying or excessive teasing.. The child may have difficulty keeping up with school work or be intimidated by a particular teacher.
Severe irrational fears in connection with certain places or activities are called phobias. It is not unusual for teenagers to be shy, but if a fear of talking or eating in public, or being looked at, becomes so strong that the young person cannot face other people at all, then a phobia has developed. Agoraphobia is the fear of being out in the open or in brightly lit public places.
Other problems are to do with obsessions or anxious repetitive thoughts that crowd the mind and won’t leave. These can give rise to compulsive rituals in an attempt to expunge them. Common rituals or compulsions are counting or moving in a certain way, or repetitive activities like hand-washing.
Eating disorders in young people seem more common than they once were. One of these conditions is Anorexia nervosa which is an abnormal fear of getting fat. A child can starve themselves, or take laxatives, or exercise excessively in order to avoid becoming fat and often end up very thin and under weight. The condition seems to affect girls more than boys.
Whatever the cause of anxiety in a child or young person, if it is sufficient to worry you as a parent, then it warrants further attention, and you should seek the advice of your doctor who can then put you in touch with the right sort of therapy.