Frequently Asked Questions and Resources for Families
What is a childhood anxiety disorder?
Many people experience anxiety and worry. However, if your child experiences persistent fears, worries, and nervousness that cause significant problems with his or her life (at home, school, with friends or with family), your child may have an anxiety disorder. There are different forms of childhood anxiety disorders, which are described below:
Children with Separation Anxiety Disorder demonstrate a fear of being away from their parents or caregivers. Children worry a great deal when separated from parents and show a strong need to be close to parents or stay at home. Social Anxiety Disorder may make it more difficult for a child to function with friends and at school and to participate in daily activities.
Children with Social Anxiety Disorder (also called Social Phobia) often worry about being judged, not accepted, or embarrassed by others. Social Anxiety Disorder may interfere with many different types of situations including giving a presentation or answering a question in school, speaking to adults, starting up conversations with peers, making new friends, and participating in activities.
Children with Generalized Anxiety Disorder worry about a wide range of things and find it difficult to control these worries. These worries may include concerns about doing well in school, their health or the health of family members, the future, world affairs, or family issues. Children with Generalized Anxiety Disorder may also experience physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, stomachaches, and sleep problems.
Children with Specific Phobia have an extreme fear of certain situations or objects. Most commonly, these fears might include being afraid of animals like spiders or dogs, getting shots, heights, thunderstorms, being in an elevator, or loud sounds. These fears are typically not realistic and cause problems in the child’s life.
Panic Disorder is characterized by reoccurring and unexpected panic attacks and worries about possible future panic attacks. During a panic attack, a child may experience difficulty breathing, fast or pounding heartbeat, sweating, numbness, or feeling very hot or cold.
Children with Selective Mutism are comfortable talking with their parents and other family members but appear silent and shy in other social situations. These children may avoid eye contact or interaction with people they are not comfortable with, and this often leads to impairment in school and in social relationships.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is not considered an Anxiety Disorder but is in a related category of disorders. Children with OCD may experience recurrent and intrusive thoughts (called obsessions) and/or feel an uncontrollable need to perform specific routines or rituals (called compulsions). Obsessions and compulsions are frequent, reoccurring thoughts and behaviors that interfere with a child’s day-to-day functioning.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is also in a category of disorders related to Anxiety Disorders. PTSD occurs following exposure to traumatic events. Children with PTSD may experience symptoms such as avoidance of situations similar to the traumatic event, pervasive recollections of the event, intense fear, agitation, or emotional “numbing.”
Is treatment really necessary? Won’t my child grow out of it?
Evidence suggests that certain types of fears and worries in children begin relatively early, and increase the chances for a child to develop other problems. If left untreated, anxiety often continues into adulthood. Early treatment can provide relief to children and also can prevent them from developing other problems like depression, attention difficulties, low self-esteem, and poor school performance.
What kinds of treatment can my child receive for anxiety?
Several types of treatments are available for children and caregivers. These can be short-term psychotherapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or medication treatments. Some children with severe worries and fears may be treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a type of short-term psychotherapy that research has shown to be helpful in treating childhood anxiety disorders. Children and their parents are taught skills to help them manage their anxiety. CBT can occur one-on-one with a therapist or in a group. Families can also be involved in treatment.
CBT is made up of two main parts: cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy. Cognitive therapy focuses on changing disturbing and unrealistic thoughts about situations or things that cause fear or worry. Children are taught skills to monitor and examine their feelings, separate realistic from unrealistic thoughts, and then confront distressing or unrealistic fears and worries in order to develop more realistic thoughts (or cognitions) about the fearful or worrisome situation. In behavioral therapy, children are taught how to change or gain control over behaviors, such as avoidance of feared situations. Children learn to overcome their fears by gradually exposing themselves to worrisome and/or fearful situations. Children start with exposure to mild situations that cause little to no fear, and gradually “move up” to more challenging situations. During the exposures, children confront their fears in small steps and are taught skills that allow them to replace fearful thoughts with more realistic thoughts. This often gives children a sense of mastery and control over the situation, allowing them to overcome their fears.
Medication may be useful in treating some child anxiety disorders and can be used in combination with psychotherapy. Depending on the child’s problems, medication can be taken on either a short-term or long-term basis. Children taking medication should be monitored carefully by a doctor/psychiatrist who is familiar with medications for child anxiety and able to monitor progress and potential side effects.
How can I get treatment or services for my child?
The first step to receiving treatment for your child is to obtain a thorough evaluation of your child’s current problems. Before treatment begins, it is helpful for you, your child, and the therapist/treatment provider to have a clear understanding of the fears and worries that are affecting your child and how these fears and worries may be causing difficulties.
If you have insurance, you can contact your insurance company for a list of providers in your area who are familiar with treating children with anxiety, and use evidence based approaches such as cognitive behavior therapy. Another option for those with and without insurance is the UCLA Psychology Clinic which offers services on a sliding fee scale. For more information or to make an appointment, please call (310) 825-2305.
Parenting Guides for Child Anxiety
- Rapee, R.M., Wignall, A., Spence,S., Cobham, V., & Lynchan, H. (2008). Helping your anxious child: A step-by-step guide for parents. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
- Stein, M.B., Walker, John R. (2002). Triumph over shyness: conquering shyness and social anxiety. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
- Manassis, K. (2008). Keys to parenting your anxious child. Happauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series.
- Chansky, T.E. (2004). Freeing your child from anxiety. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
- Chansky, T.E. (2000). Freeing your child from obsessive compulsive disorder. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
- Markway, B.G. and Markway, G.P. (2004). Nurturing the shy child. Practical help for raising confident and socially skilled kids and teens. New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books.
Internet Resources – to learn more about anxiety as well as treatment for anxiety
- Anxiety Disorders Association of American: www.adaa.org
- Anxiety BC: www.anxietybc.com
- Child Anxiety Network: www.childanxiety.net
- Selective Mutism Group: www.selectivemutism.org
- Social Anxiety Resource: https://onlinesocialwork.case.edu/understanding-social-anxiety-disorder/
Suicide & Crisis Hotlines-USA National Suicide Hotlines (toll-free/24 hours/7 days a week)
- 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889)