Children can experience anxiety disorders

This is the third article in a series about anxiety.

Q: What are anxiety and anxiety disorders in children?

A: Anxiety often arises during childhood. Research suggests biology and environment can be factors in the development of anxiety. Early traumatic events can reset the normal fear-processing so that it is overly reactive to stress.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder frequently starts in adolescence or young adulthood. Children and teens worry excessively when they have GAD. They worry about their grades in school and their performance in sports. They also worry about catastrophes, such as war or earthquakes. Children with GAD can experience physical symptoms that make it difficult to function and interfere with their daily lives. The above information is from a National Institute of Health 2016 revision.

On the website, very well-known author Katherine Lee addressed the question of anxiety disorders in children. The first type is Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Children with GAD have constant, excessive and uncontrollable fears. The fears are about grades, family problems, sports, being on time and natural disasters (as mentioned previously). These children with GAD often are perfectionists. They can have trouble sleeping, experience irritability and find it hard to concentrate in school.

Another anxiety disorder common in toddlers is Separation Anxiety Disorder. It can occur initially when a parent or caregiver leaves the room. As children who are older attend daycare, preschool or kindergarten, they can experience separation anxiety. Separation anxiety usually goes away as children become familiar with a new environment.

However, even in grade school, children might experience excessive fear and anxiety when separated from a parent. Children in grade school with separation anxiety can be reluctant to attend school or to sleep alone. Lastly, children with SAD might fear something bad will happen to them or their parents when they are separated.

Children with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder have repeated thoughts they cannot control called obsessions. They might feel driven to perform rituals and routines, called compulsions, to control their thoughts and lessen their anxiety. A child who has OCD spends a lot on time or rituals such as hand washing, counting, repeating words or repeatedly checking and rechecking things like door locks to control unpleasant image, thoughts or feelings.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can develop after children witness or experience a life-threatening event such as a car accident. Many children recover quickly following a traumatic episode. However, those children who experienced the event directly or those children who lack strong support symptoms can develop PTSD. They can continue to have nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, depression, and intense anxiety and fear. Children can re-enact the traumatic event when playing. Children might withdraw and avoid people, places and activities for months following the traumatic event.

Children with phobias have intense, irrational fears about something specific, such as dogs, needles, thunderstorms, flying and heights. Children with phobias are less likely to be able to put their fears in perspective or realize their fears are unrealistic, whereas adults are more able to rationalize their phobias into proportion.

Early diagnosis and treatment are important for effective treatment of children’s anxiety disorders. When anxiety disorders in children are untreated, they have a detrimental effect on children and can lead to problems in developing friendships, problems in school and low self-esteem.

The following information has been written by William L. Mace, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice. He noted a recent program on television in which mental health experts spoke about childhood anxiety. Beginning at age 4, 9 percent of preschoolers had developed Childhood Anxiety Disorder. By age 6, children presented with Separation Anxiety. By age 10, some children had Generalized Anxiety Disorder with an overlay of Social Anxiety.

There is some evidence childhood anxiety disorders can lead to adult mental disorders. One in every five young adults between 18 and 28 reported an anxiety event in the previous 12-month period. The inability to deal effectively with anxiety gets greater over time because any maladaptive coping mechanism must be dealt with first before addressing the underlying anxiety.

Experts found the only social stigma associated with Childhood Anxiety came from parents who refused to acknowledge it. Children can have Childhood Anxiety for one to seven years before parents accept the problem and then they might begin to comfort and overprotect the child, thus preventing the child from learning to cope. Childhood symptoms can include stomach aches before school, too much time spent playing computer games and avoidance of many everyday social encounters.

Behavioral therapies either with or without medication have proven effective in treating anxiety, especially anxiety in children. One of the significant reasons for the spike in anxiety among teens is the increase in the use of technology. An example is the device called a “fidget spinner.” Originally made to help children with anxiety, ADHD and autism, sales have been explosive, particularly among children, teens and young adults.

Smartphones, computers, video games and other technical devices have a mesmerizing or hypnotic effect on users. Children become addicted to technology, and any attempts to dislodge them or disrupt their use results in their anxiety. One of the main problems with technology is it tends to replace time spent in independent, creative play, time spent outdoors and interactive socialization with other children.

• Next week’s article will begin a discussion of anxiety disorders in adults.

Judy Caprez is professor emeritus at Fort Hays State University.