The Differences between Childhood Anxiety and Adult Anxiety
If you suffer from anxiety, you know the overwhelm that can strike at random. You may have certain places or situations you recognize as potential triggers. Maybe you are one of the significant number of adults who has ended up in the ER thinking they are having a heart attack only to find out they are suffering a panic attack.
In whatever forms anxiety has found and exploited you, it is likely you recognize that your symptoms, your reactions and feelings, when you experience anxiety, are extreme.
Children suffering from anxiety lack a frame of reference to understand that their reactions and feelings are extreme. Children have less experience with what are considered normal responses; they know how they feel in the moment, not how to evaluate their feelings for reasonableness. Children are less likely to recognize that their worry is excessive, that their fear is irrational, or that their behavior is maladaptive.
Throughout life, we experience various natural, protective fears. If we lack certain fears, we are more likely to place ourselves in dangerous and harmful situations. Moderate levels of age-appropriate anxiety is normal, and can be healthy. Can you imagine what the world would be like if no circumstances made us uncomfortable, and we jumped into every situation with both feet because we could not comprehend potential danger?
It is developmentally normal for young children to experience some level of separation anxiety. It is rarely considered disordered unless it is excessive for the child’s developmental level. For example, it is common for children starting preschool or kindergarten to experience separation anxiety as they adapt to their new stage in life; it is not expected in a middle-schooler.
As children are not as capable as adults to assess their emotional and physiological distress for appropriateness, they are not as able to articulate what they are feeling. Many symptoms of childhood anxiety are the same as adult anxiety, but can be experienced or expressed differently, sometimes in opposition or aggression.
Symptoms of Childhood Anxiety
- Trouble sleeping
- Sleepiness during the day
- Difficulty concentrating
- Excessive worry
- Too much time spent in solitary play/video games
- Avoidance of various typical social interactions
- Refusal/inability to speak in certain social situations
- Disruptive behavior
As children grow toward young adulthood, anxiety can lead to the following issues:
- Isolation and loss of friendships
- Poor school performance or academic decline
- Suicidal ideation
- Self-destructive behavior
- Substance abuse or addiction
The Most Common Anxiety Disorders Diagnosed in Children
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Excessive worry about a variety of things which could include peer relationships, family issues, or academic or athletic performance. Children who suffer from GAD tend to be hard on themselves, and struggle with perfectionism.
Separation Anxiety Disorder: It is common for children aged 18-months to three-years to experience some separation anxiety, and for children to cry when first dropped off at daycare or preschool but become distracted from their discomfort by activity. Older children who cannot leave a parent or particular caregiver and children of any age who take much longer to calm down than their peers may suffer from separation anxiety disorder.
Panic Disorder: Unexpected anxiety or panic attacks that come on suddenly and for no reason, followed by concern over losing control again.
Social Anxiety Disorder: Typically, intense fear of social situations or performance situations and activities.
Selective Mutism: Children may be talkative and sociable in places they feel comfortable, but refuse to talk in specific situations where talking is expected or necessary.
Specific Phobias: Intense, irrational fear of a specific object.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Obsessions (unwanted and intrusive thoughts), typically paired with compulsions (feeling compelled to repeatedly perform routines and rituals) to try to ease the discomfort of anxiety.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): As some adults who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic or life-threatening event, children can develop intense fear, emotional numbing, irritability, and avoidance beyond the feelings of fear, sadness, or apprehension that are typical after such events.
Helping a Child Struggling with Anxiety
Telling a children not to worry will not eliminate anxiety. The goal is help them learn to manage it.
Keeping a child away from potential triggers and stressors does not solve the problem, but can compound it, as the reasonableness of their anxiety is reinforced.
Reassuring children that everything will be okay can be counterproductive. For example, if a child fears failing a test or performing poorly during a competition, you cannot guarantee that they never fail or make a mistake. What you can do is help them understand that no matter what happens, they will be okay.
Asking children about how they are feeling is good, but it is important to not do it the wrong way. An open-ended question like, “How are you feeling about your first soccer game?” is more helpful than feeding anxiety by asking a leading question like, “Are you worried about your first soccer game?”
Listening and empathizing can help children understand what they are anxious about and encourage them to face their fears. Let them know you know that they are worried, that it is okay, and you are there for them. It is possible to respect feelings without empowering them.
Getting nervous about what makes children nervous can reinforce their anxiety if you betray yours in your voice, avoidance behavior, or body language.
Overprotecting children can keep them from learning to cope.
Anxiety is unpleasant at any age. While adults often need help to develop the tools they need to overcome it, children do even more so, as anxiety can impact social and cognitive development. Helping children learn to cope with and overcome anxiety empowers them to be more independent, and helps them gain confidence to take on their fears and other challenges.