Children

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Anxiety disorders

In this section:

What is an anxiety disorder?

Occasional fear and worry are a normal part of any child’s life. Some fears and worries are normal for certain age groups. For example, young children may have a fear of the dark or of monsters. These fears often get better as a child gets older. Older children might worry about school or social situations. Sometimes anxiety does not go away or get better with time, other times, it does. Anxiety disorders occur when fear and worry happen very often, they are severe, and they affect a child’s ability to function in their daily life. If these problems are present for 6 months or longer, a child might be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

It is possible to have more than one type of anxiety disorder, and signs of anxiety disorder may start in childhood and continue to adulthood. If anxiety disorders are not treated, they can cause children to be sad, distressed, and have trouble in school, at home, and with peers. With treatment, children and adolescents with anxiety disorders can get better.

Symptoms of anxiety disorders can differ, but might include:

  • Worry that can’t be controlled
  • Fast breathing
  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Feeling that something bad is going to happen
  • Trying to avoid things that cause fear 
  • Disruptive behavior or acting out

What causes anxiety disorders?

We don’t always know what causes an anxiety disorder. Sometimes a medical disorder can cause symptoms of an anxiety disorder. In some people, anxiety disorders might be inherited. Stress or very upsetting events can trigger an anxiety disorder.
How are anxiety disorders diagnosed?

It is important to discuss your child’s health concerns with their pediatrician. Diagnosis can be made by your pediatrician or by a mental health provider (psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist). You may be asked to complete questionnaires and answer questions about your child’s emotions and behavior to see if they have the symptoms of an anxiety disorder. If your child is old enough, they may be interviewed and asked questions.

How are anxiety disorders treated?

Treatment will depend on the type of anxiety disorder present and your child’s age. Treatment could include:

  • Behavioral therapy - a therapist works with the parent and child to understand and change behaviors
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) - a therapist works with your child to help them understand how thoughts affect feelings and teach ways of changing thoughts and behaviors in order to feel better
    • Exposure therapy, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that teaches children and adolescents how to face scary situations and cope with them, in order to reduce fear.
  • Medication to reduce anxiety symptoms. There are several medications used to treat anxiety disorders. Medications could be prescribed by a psychiatrist or by your pediatrician. Medication could be used together with psychotherapy, or alone. Medication might make symptoms decrease, but will not cure an anxiety disorder.

When should I seek help?

You should consider asking for help if:

  • Your child is often worried, scared, or sad
  • Your child talks about hurting themselves or someone else
  • Your child is having behavior problems when they are scared
  • Your child has trouble getting through their daily activities
  • Your child is frequently reluctant to participate in daily activities
  • Your child’s sadness is affecting the family

How do I get help?

You should first discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician to rule out any medical causes of the symptoms. Help is available through Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. 

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