Anxiety in Children & Teens

Anxiety in Children & Teens

Anxiety is a normal part of childhood and is usually temporary and harmless. However, children who suffer from an anxiety disorder experience fear, nervousness and shyness to the point that they start to avoid places and activities.

One in eight children is affected by an anxiety disorder, with symptoms commonly emerging around age six. Left untreated, children with an anxiety disorder are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences and engage in substance abuse.

Children and teens can experience any type of anxiety disorder. However, separation anxiety disorder and selective mutism are generally diagnosed only in children.

Treating Children

Studies on treating childhood anxiety disorders have found that cognitive behavioral therapy can effectively treat anxiety disorders in children. Also, educating children about the nature of anxiety, ways to identify, evaluate and change anxious thoughts plus training in relaxation strategies have all been used with some success. Children are also taught to learn to recognize the physiological symptoms of anxiety and are taught to use positive “self-talk” rather than negative self-talk.

Techniques commonly used include relaxation training, use of imagery techniques, token reinforcement implemented by parents (e.g. praise, sticker charts), and careful self-monitoring of positive behaviors. Through exposure therapy, children are also taught ways to gradually face situations that they formerly avoided due to fear. Exposure therapy should be implemented by a trained therapist.

How Parents Can Help

Recent research suggests that parental involvement in treatment can enhance treatment effectiveness. By learning new ways to interact with their child, the child’s fears are not inadvertently reinforced. Parents can provide praise and positive reinforcement for brave behavior as well as implement and practice new coping skills with their children between sessions. Because children’s anxiety symptoms have been found to have significant impact on the family, many clinicians incorporate family therapy into their treatment protocol.