Anxiety often gets a bad rap. Feelings of anxiety allow us to recognize difficult situations and gear up our bodies and minds to tackle them. Olympic athletes experience anxiety before competing. Teenagers experience anxiety before taking a college entrance exam. Toddlers experience anxiety when their bedrooms go dark. Anxiety, at its root, is a natural, evolutionary response to a perceived danger.
But sometimes feelings of anxiety arise even when they are disassociated from an immediate trigger. Distressing fears may become persistent, severe, and interfere with the ability to function in everyday life, for both children and adults.
Anxiety disorders can be broken down into a number of different types depending on the symptoms or triggers, including:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Panic Disorder
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Symptoms of these anxiety disorders can manifest in adults and older children in many similar ways, with teens being particularly susceptible to social anxiety disorder. But additional anxiety disorders are particular to younger children, such as:
- Separation Anxiety Disorder
- Selective Autism
Adults suffering from any of these anxiety disorders often know that their reactions, symptoms, and feelings are extreme. But children, because they lack the experience or cognitive ability, are often unaware that their behavior is out-of-the-ordinary.
Although the National Institutes of Health recognizes that the “core risk phase” for the development of many adult anxiety disorders are the childhood and adolescent years, diagnosing childhood anxiety orders can be tricky for several reasons.
First, depending on the age, young children may not have yet developed the cognitive or communicative ability to articulate the precise nature and depth of their fears or feelings.
Second, a natural part of a child’s development includes distinct periods of anxious behavior. A jittery, wailing toddler truly believes that her mother has disappeared when she shuts herself behind the bathroom door. A three-year-old may scream in panic and cower in a closet whenever he hears thunder. Mental health professionals are trained to separate normal developmental anxiety behavior from the potential of a more pernicious anxiety disorder.
Recognizing and diagnosing anxiety disorders in children is crucial, for studies have shown that early intervention and parental response training can make all the difference for a child’s future. If your child exhibits anxious behavior that seems particularly intense, or that you fear may lay outside the age frame of normal development, don’t hesitate to speak to your pediatrician or contact a pediatric mental health professional.