Anita Saltz Institute for Anxiety and Mood Disorders

Anxiety and mood disorders are the most common mental health problems affecting children and teenagers. They are often missed, causing children to fail receiving the help they need.

It is common for parents and teachers to assume that the child will "grow out of it," but we know that often this is not the case. Untreated anxiety can cause severe problems in the short and long run. The great majority of adults with anxiety disorders have a history of anxiety in childhood. In addition, children with anxiety disorders are more likely to become depressed in adolescence and adulthood than their non-anxious peers. Anxiety that affects a child's happiness deserves our best efforts to help. The Institute is directed by Rachel G. Klein, Ph.D.

ANXIETY DISORDERS take various forms, and their manifestations vary with age. In all instances, the child's discomfort is excessive and disproportionate to the situation:

  • Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD): Marked anxiety when away from close family members or from home. Some common signs include refusal to sleep alone, difficulty attending school, worry about parents' safety, and severe homesickness.

  • Social anxiety: Extreme shyness or intense discomfort in social situations. Children and adolescents with social anxiety are very self-conscious, and have difficulty interacting with unfamiliar peers. Discomfort may also be related to public speaking, performances, or playing sports.

  • Panic Disorder (with or without Agoraphobia): Recurrent, uncued panic attacks that may include trouble breathing, light-headedness, rapid heart rate. These "attacks" may cause concerns about the location of exits or ways to "escape," and may lead to avoidance of public places (e.g., movies, restaurants).

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): These children and teenagers are worriers! They worry about school grades, family finances, and the future. They hold themselves to high standards and may appear to be "perfectionists."

  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Unwanted, repetitive thoughts and behaviors that seem unacceptable and cause intense distress. These children and adolescents may check and recheck items, wash excessively, count repeatedly, or arrange items in a particular fixed fashion.

  • Specific Phobia: Intense unreasonable fear of a specific object or situation that poses no danger. Some common phobias are of animals, flying, and storms.

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Anxiety that results from experiencing a traumatic event or serious accident, natural disaster, or severe abuse.

Other Related Difficulties

  • Manipulative and Oppositional behavior: Children and teenagers with anxiety are often viewed as manipulative because they try to control the environment to avoid experiencing anxiety. They can also be oppositional and defiant to requests of parents or other adults. Often this is caused by anxiety the child has about engaging in certain tasks or behaviors (e.g., calling a peer for the homework, talking to the teacher, or going on sleepovers).

  • Selective mutism: Anxiety regarding speaking in some environments. Children speak at home around their families, but not in school or with unfamiliar persons.

If you have concerns about your child, review our Anxiety Checklist for Parents, which describes some difficulties typical of children with anxiety disorders.

Mood disorders include depression and bipolar disorder

  • Depression: Depressed children and teenagers experience a change in their enjoyment of life. They may experience fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of death. They may be irritable and moody, and have less interest in activities that were once pleasurable, such as playing sports, or seeing friends. Depressed children may seem pessimistic, have a negative view of themselves and others, complain of boredom, and may suffer from low self-esteem. Depression is rare in young children, but becomes common in adolescents, especially in girls.

Even when not severe, depression can lead to declining school performance, impaired family and peer relationships. When severe, it can lead to suicidal thoughts and attempts.

If you have concerns about your child, review our Depression Checklist for Parents, which describes difficulties typical of depressed children.

  • Bipolar Disorder: A phasic condition in which mood is variable. During some periods of time, the child is depressed; during other periods, the person feels elated, over confident, impulsive, and easily frustrated. Bipolar disorder typically begins in adolescence and is very rare in young children.

Visit our A-Z Disorder Guide more information on these and other disorders.