Supporting Children and Adolescents with Anxiety

Although anxiety is a common experience for everyone on almost a daily basis, abnormally high levels of anxiety can greatly impair an individual’s functioning. For children and adolescents with anxiety disorders, problems are observed in their social, personal, and/or academic functioning. For these children, anxiety is preventing them from fully participating in typical activities of day-to-day life.

Anxiety disorders account for the most common psychiatric disorders in childhood. Interestingly, the signs of an anxiety disorder are similar in children and adults, although children may display more irritability and inattention. Additional signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder include perfectionism, constant need for reassurance, shyness and withdrawal, and frequent complaints of headaches and/or stomachaches. Habit behaviors, such as hair pulling or twirling, may also be observed. As with most mental illnesses, anxiety disorders are thought to result from a combination of factors, including genetic makeup, learning from others, and specific life events and/or transitions.

Fortunately, highly-effective treatments for childhood anxiety are available. The two most empirically-supported treatments are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication. In addition to pursuing treatment in a clinical setting, parents can play an essential role in helping their child or teen manage the symptoms of anxiety. It is important that parents maintain the same expectations as they would any other child, while also understanding that their anxious child may move at a slower pace. Additionally, parents should not avoid triggers of anxiety, but rather encourage independence and allow their child to take reasonable risks. Lastly, parents’ attention are oftentimes their most powerful tool. Parents can use their attention to reward brave behaviors, as well as remove their attention for excessive anxious/avoidant behaviors. When brave behaviors and coping skills are practiced and rewarded, children and teens begin to gain confidence in their abilities to manage their anxiety.