Questions & Answers

How did my child become so anxious? Is it my fault?

Looking for blame is not productive for parents or children. Anxiety disorders are most likely the result of the interaction between a child's biological sensitivity and experience. Children react in a physically anxious way to various situations, especially when they feel they are not in control. In addition, they may distort or exaggerate events in their minds; for example, thinking that if something can happen to someone else it can happen to them in an even worse way. This thought process is called catastrophizing.

Isn't this just a phase my child is going through? It's normal to be scared sometimes.

Anxiety disorders can start in childhood and can be a chronic problem. Certainly all kids and adults go through phases when they are more worried about things than at other times. Periodic anxiety and worries are a normal part of life. This kind of worry is different from the anxiety that interferes with home life, academic performance, peer relationships, and the ability to distract oneself and move on from the problem.

What should I look for when I think my child may have a real problem with anxiety?

With the help of a professional, it is important to identify how intense the symptoms are, whether the reaction and the behaviors are extreme, and how long the problem has persisted.

Will my child always be like this?

Everyone must learn to live with a certain amount of anxiety. Fortunately, anxiety disorders are highly treatable. Appropriate treatment can reduce or completely prevent the recurrence of problems in 70 to 90% of patients. Cognitive behavioral treatments teach children skills to cope with both the physical symptoms and the behavioral reactions. For example, children are taught coping and mastery skills such as relaxation techniques and coping phrases to tell themselves when anxiety is at its height.

How do I parent a child with an anxiety disorder?

With good intentions, parents are apt to rescue their children—to try to comfort and soothe them when they are feeling upset and anxious. However, this approach can teach the child to give up quickly and rely on others to make him feel better. Although it is difficult, parents should let their child feel some distress, question the child about what is happening, and think about what he or she should do. In this way, parents let the child experience some struggle rather than be rescued; they help the child choose ways to manage the situation, and praise them for their attempts as well as for their successes.

Anxiety untreated may lead to loss of friendships, failure to realize social and academic potential, and feelings of low self-esteem. Proper treatment may include cognitive behavioral therapy, social enhancement groups, and/or medication.

Some anxiety disorders are more common in childhood than others. Separation Anxiety, Selective Mutism and Specific Phobias are more common in younger children, about ages 6-9 years old, while Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) are more common in middle childhood and adolescence.