Like adults, children can suffer from different types and degrees of anxiety. Some anxiety is a normal part of childhood development, such as being apprehensive about the first day of school. However, recurring or debilitating anxiety is cause for concern. It is helpful to first identify the type of anxiety affecting the child by contacting a mental health professional for a diagnosis and treatment plan.
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Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, is one of the most common types of anxiety disorders seen in children. Symptoms must be present over a period of six months or longer for a diagnosis of GAD, and include tension, irritability, perfectionism and excessive worry. Some children experience physical symptoms like fatigue, upset stomach and diarrhea. Children with GAD are often anxious about grades, social acceptance and pleasing parents.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Mild separation anxiety is normal in children under age 3--they may cry briefly when a parent leaves them at childcare or with a sitter. Separation anxiety is problematic when it impedes the child’s learning and socialization. Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder usually occur between ages 7 and 9. They include insomnia, depression, debilitating homesickness at sleepovers or camp, and persistent fear that a loved one will die.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, affects about 2 percent of adolescents. The Anxiety Disorders Association of America defines obsession as “unwanted intrusive thoughts” and compulsion as “ritualistic behaviors and routines to ease anxiety or distress.” Common obsessions include counting, arranging and fear of germs. Common compulsions include hoarding, repeatedly checking something and excessive hand washing.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, may occur after a traumatic event like abuse, witnessing violence, or surviving an event such as an earthquake or car accident. Symptoms include flashbacks, night terrors, panic, withdrawal from society, irritability and feeling emotionally numb.
Panic disorder involves two or more panic attacks followed by fear of suffering another attack. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines panic attacks as “periods of intense fear accompanied by a pounding heartbeat, sweating, dizziness, nausea or a feeling of imminent death.”
Phobias are intense, often debilitating fears that may be brought on by an experience or may have no apparent cause. Children may experience social phobia in which they fear embarrassing themselves in front of others, or specific phobia such as fear of spiders, heights, water, bees, elevators, tunnels, bridges, darkness and enclosed spaces--but children can experience a phobic reaction to almost anything. Children often go out of their way to avoid the phobic trigger, and experience extreme anxiety or paralyzing fear if they encounter the object or situation.