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Small People, Big Worries: Children and Anxiety

It’s easy to think that you’d need the worldly weight of an adult’s responsibilities and viewpoints to suffer from anxiety disorders. However, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health over 7% of children ages 3-17 (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety. 

In most cases, parents or guardians take responsibility for the primary physical needs and major decisions in a child’s daily life, from providing food and shelter to guidance on how they spend their time and laying plans for their long-term development. It may be difficult to imagine that children find their lives stressful, but the anxiety they experience – phobias, panic attacks, selective mutism, even the common separation anxiety – is very real, scary, and challenging to manage on their own. Fortunately, children’s anxiety problems are sometimes short-term and a patient, caring parent can shepherd them through difficult times and help develop strategies for coping with anxiety issues.

Causes of Anxiety In Children

Many factors can contribute to anxiety in children, including:

  • Biological factors related to the delicate balance of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. These chemical messengers relay messages around the brain and tell us how we should feel. When the mix of these neurotransmitters is off-balance, the messaging can warp and lead sufferers to believe untrue, negative things about themselves or their world. It can be very difficult to see when your own mind is lying to you, so a trusted parent’s experienced viewpoint is especially valuable. 
  • Familial factors include not only the genetics passed on from your family tree, but the learned behavior taught directly or indirectly by parents or caregivers. Children learn how to manage life’s difficult situations by seeing how their parents deal with stress. Parents who model anxious behavior are more likely to have children who exhibit similar behavior.
  • Environmental factors are the experiences that the child has gone through. Bullying at school, severe stress about getting good grades, a combative household or parents going through divorce, moving or otherwise drastically uprooting their routine, and illnesses disrupting their stability can all lead to anxiety issues if not properly dealt with.  

Of course, anyone’s day will have its share of difficult choices and stressful situations. A small, healthy amount of anxiety is a normal part of a child’s life and can be useful for motivation to try harder at certain things or dissuade them from doing something that may be dangerous. It is very normal for young children to feel a bit of separation anxiety from their parents or to “clam up” with shyness in new social situations. Most kids outgrow these minor anxieties as they experience more time on their own and develop the necessary self-confidence. Unfortunately in some cases, these or other concerns eventually develop into childhood anxiety disorders.

When children are experiencing ongoing and pervasive feelings of fear and danger, affecting the child’s ability to enjoy normal activities, they may be dealing with an anxiety disorder which can, in some cases, lead to longer-term depression issues if left untreated. Common signs to look out for include:

  • Pervasive worrying and/or seeking reassurance almost every day
  • Problems sleeping at night
  • Avoiding taking part in age-appropriate activities without their parent present
  • Hyperventilation, chest pains and/or palpitations
  • Frequent stomachaches, nausea, or vomiting
  • Repetitive rituals, such as repeated hand washing or checking things over and over
  • Intrusive thoughts

Center for Life Management provides the Southern New Hampshire area’s most comprehensive array of mental health care for children and their families. Our specialists work with children experiencing serious emotional difficulties in individual, group, or family therapy contexts. There is no “one size fits all” in mental health – we assess the needs of each client and family in order to provide the most effective services including talk sessions, play therapy, or medication-assisted treatment if necessary.

We also regularly offer a variety of psycho-therapeutic and skill-building groups focused on helping children and teens understand their challenges and develop successful management strategies. Led by children’s clinicians, these groups are tailored to specific age groups and cover a variety of anxiety, depression, and self-compassion topics. Being a part of a therapeutic group can be a profound, powerful and helpful experience for children and teens.

Childhood’s reputation as an easy, carefree time is simply not the case for many young people. They often do not recognize their confusing and frustrating feelings as relatively common worries that may be easier to work through with the guidance of an experienced professional. Reaching out to the Center for Life Management may be the first step!