Anxiety, Worry or Fear

Anxiety and fear are natural human emotions that everyone experiences. Some children are afraid of the dark and some worry about big tests at school. However, if a child seems to experience anxiety more strongly or frequently than others his or her age, or worries so much that it interferes with relationships, school, or daily activities, an evaluation by a professional may be needed.


Checklist of Symptoms

Below is a list of symptoms that children who have problems with anxiety or worry may show.

  • Often worries too much, broods over things, and feels very nervous
  • Often expects or worries that bad things will happen to self or others
  • Often seems “edgy”, restless, or irritable
  • Often has difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Often has trouble sleeping alone or experiences frequent nighttime fears and/or nightmares
  • Often complains of stomach pain, headache, and/or dizziness
  • Often experiences shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, and/or chest pain
  • Often experiences sweating, chills or hot flashes, or shaking
  • Avoids situations that cause anxiety or experiences severe distress when placed in these situations (e.g., crying, tantrums, or freezing)


Possible Diagnoses or Explanations of Behaviors

Anxiety Disorders are among the most common mental health problems that children experience, affecting one in eight children. There are a number of different types of anxiety disorders and children can experience these disorders with different levels of intensity ranging from mild to severe.

Listed below are common diagnoses that could explain problems with worry or anxiety. Click on the disorder name to learn more about it from the A-Z Disorder Guide provided by the NYU Child Study Center.

Social Anxiety Disorder (also known as Social Phobia)

Children with Social Phobia have an intense and excessive fear of being negatively judged, embarrassed, humiliated, or rejected by others. They may be fearful of people they don’t know and have difficulty making friends or meeting new people. Children with this disorder often try to avoid social situations that make them anxious.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Children who are diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) have excessive and uncontrollable worries about many different everyday activities, such as being on time for appointments, school performance, their health, family matters, or changes in routine. They may also worry about less likely catastrophic events like earthquakes or nuclear war. Children with GAD may also experience trouble concentrating, sleep problems, irritability, muscle aches or tension or other physical symptoms.

Specific Phobia

A Specific Phobia is an intense and persistent fear of a particular object or situation that is excessive and unreasonable. Phobias differ from usual fears in that they are irrational, do not decrease when a child is reassured and comforted, and interfere in a child’s daily life.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Children with Separation Anxiety Disorder show an extreme fear of being away from home or their caregivers. They experience a high level of distress during separation and this affects their ability to function socially and academically. Children with this disorder worry excessively when separated from their caregivers and prefer to stay at home or be close to their parents.

Panic Disorder

Panic Disorder is characterized by episodes of intense fear in which a child experiences physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, racing heart, tingling or numbness in the body, hot or cold flushes, dizziness, or nausea. Panic attacks may also be accompanied by agoraphobia, which means that a child fears being stuck in a situation where they could not escape or get help if needed.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Children with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) have obsessions and/or compulsions that they feel unable to control and that are severe enough to impact their everday lives.  Obesssions are repeated, unwanted thoughts; compulsions are repeated, purposeless behaviors that are done to relieve the anxiety that comes from the compulsive thoughts.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Children who are directly exposed to or witness a traumatic event, such as an actual or threatened death of a family member or a major natural disaster, may experience a prolonged reaction characterized as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms include intense fear, agitated behavior, emotional numbness, anxiety and depression.


Learn about Evaluation and Treatment of mental health problems among children.


Resources on Anxiety

Anxiety Disorders Association of America

Mood & Anxiety Disorders Institute (MADI) Resource Center

National Institute of Mental Health: Anxiety Disorders

 

Sources

Information provided on this website about common emotional and behavioral problems experienced by children is drawn from sources including:

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Boston Bar Association. (2009). The Parents' How-to Guide to Children's Mental Health Services in Massachusetts (2nd edition). Boston: Author.  URL:http://www.bostonbar.org/theguide/bba_theguide_jan2009.pdf. Accessed: 2010-12-09. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/5ur8YAB1Z)

Klimkeit, E. I., Mattingley, J. B., Sheppard, D. M., Farrow, M., Bradshaw, J. L. (2004). Examining the Development of Attention and Executive Functions in Children with a Novel Paradigm. Child Neuropsychology, 10 (3), 201-211.

NYU Child Study Center. A-Z Disorder Guide. URL:http://www.aboutourkids.org/families/disorders_treatments/az_disorder_guide. Accessed: 2010-12-09. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/5ur83VhUw)

 

Date reviewed: October 29, 2014