All children feel anxious at times. Many children, for example, show great distress when separated from their parents or when they have to deal with situations that are new to them. For 10 to15% of children, anxiety can be severe enough to interfere with their daily activities. Anxiety problems can lead to isolation, lost opportunities to learn and play, and low self-esteem.
Although by the teen years more girls than boys are diagnosed with anxiety disorders, both boys and girls develop anxiety problems. New information shows that many boys who present with conduct problems have underlying anxiety problems. Children dealing with anxiety often have parents who are similarly affected, suggesting that biology has a role to play in whether someone is anxiety-prone. But the good news is that with the right supports, treatment, and environment, children with anxiety are very successful in learning to overcome its impact.
Generalized anxiety: Children experience persistent, extreme, unrealistic worry unrelated to actual events. They are often self-conscious and tense and have a chronic need for reassurance. They may suffer from aches and pains that appear to have no physical basis.
Selective mutism: Children become non-verbal in school settings, with adults, and/or with peers. They may be unable to answer questions, take part in group discussion, or give oral reports.
Phobias: Children suffer unrealistic and excessive fears that may centre on a particular object (e.g., spiders) or situation (e.g., being in an enclosed space). Social phobias may centre on a fear of being watched, criticized, or judged harshly by others.
Panic attacks: Children may experience periods of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms such as a pounding heartbeat, sweating, dizziness, nausea, or a feeling of imminent death. Students with panic attacks will go to great lengths to avoid them. This may mean refusal to attend school, leaving the school grounds, or refusal to be separated from parents.
Obsessive-compulsive problems: Children become trapped in a pattern of repetitive thoughts and behaviours. These may include repeated handwashing, counting, or arranging and rearranging objects. (See “Special Focus on Children Dealing with Obsessive-Compulsive Difficulties” for more information.)
Post-traumatic stress (PTS): Children suffering from PTS may be overwhelmed, startled, or upset easily. They may be vigilant about potential harm, overly vulnerable to being harmed by others.