Can children suffer from anxiety?


BarcelonaAnxiety is a basic emotion that all people experience, including children. “It’s normal and healthy” and it’s our body’s reaction to stress. It usually appears in response to a danger or threat. “It’s an adaptive reaction to a danger. Basically it has a protective function. If we didn’t have this alarm system, the human species wouldn’t exist,” says Esther Camprodon, psychologist in the incipient psychotic disorders unit and deputy in the mental health area of ​​Hospital Sant Joan Déu. Anxiety disorders can be suffered at any age and are among the most prevalent disorders in childhood and adolescence. “Fears are evolutionary and manifest themselves differently at each developmental stage. From zero to two years, for example, they fear a sudden loss of their father or mother, and if it disappears, they cry,” says Camprodon.

The dark, monsters or the fear of falling off the bike are examples that involve the first experiences of anxiety. For other children, these feelings appear in social and evaluative situations, such as taking a test, meeting other children, or being the butt of a joke. Usually this anxiety is occasional and short-lived, although some people are more anxious than others.

Anxiety manifests itself as a response system: cognitive (attention shifts to the potential threat), physiological (palpitations, shallow breathing, tremors, sweating…) and behavioral (engaging in certain behaviors and avoiding -and others).

What is the difference between fear and anxiety?

Fear is the physiological reaction to a danger and activates mechanisms that prepare us to fight or flee, and that if they were not activated we would not be able to react. Also, it usually comes from an identified threat. Instead, anxiety appears when the danger does not exist, when we anticipate a situation. “For example, I have an exam and anxiety appears because I’m imagining that situation and anticipating the danger, even though I’m not taking the exam at the moment,” says Camprodon. “If I’m walking down a dark street and I’m afraid, it’s an adaptive emotion because I have to be alert to run out if necessary, but if I anticipate a future danger that I don’t know if it’s going to be like that or not, that’s when this more cognitive part appears that is anxiety,” adds the psychologist.

When is it considered a problem?

When anxiety is of a high and disabling intensity, when it interferes with daily life and negatively affects the ability to work, study or socialize, or when it prevents you from doing daily tasks, it is when it is considered a problem. “From 9 to 12 he may be afraid of failing, and that’s adaptive, but it’s a problem when he chooses not to sit for exams repeatedly because he’s afraid of failing. And from 6 to 8 the child may have concerns about to be separated from parents, but if he stops going to camps, doesn’t sleep at friends’ or grandparents’ houses and stops doing activities he would like to do because the anxiety is excessive, it would be advisable to ask for help”, says Esther Camprodon. Anxiety has treatment. “If it is treated in time, the situation can be reversed quickly,” he adds.

How do anxiety disorders present themselves in children?

Anxiety can manifest itself in different ways. The FAROS Observatory of Sant Joan de Déu distinguishes the following:

  1. Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD): Distress over separation from loved ones and changes in familiar situations is a normal part of growing up. A child with excessive anxiety about daily separation from their parents may be suffering from this disorder. Crying, needing to hold onto someone, or feeling panicked about separation are common indicators, as is excessive worry that something might happen to them. They are also clear signs that the child is afraid that the parents will not come home, that he does not want to sleep alone and that he refuses to go to school.
  2. Specific phobia: Excessive fear of animals, the natural environment (wind, lightning) or specific situations (blood, injections, wounds).
  3. Panic disorder: It is the sudden and unexpected onset of panic attacks.
  4. Health anxiety: Excessive concern for health that generates obsessive and compulsive behaviors.
  5. Social phobia: Some children feel anxiety when approaching certain social situations. They have difficulty speaking out loud in class, joining a conversation, making and talking to friends, asserting themselves or participating in class activities. These children tend to worry too much about what others think and show excessive concern if they do or say something awkward. They avoid these situations for fear of making a fool of themselves or being criticized.
  6. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Children with this disorder worry about many things, from school performance and health to family matters and what’s going on in the world. They tend to have irritability, sleep disturbances and muscle aches or pains caused by worry.
  7. Post-traumatic stress disorder: The symptoms appear after experiencing a traumatic situation.

What are the warning signs?

  • If you avoid situations that you used to do regularly.
  • If you are overly concerned.
  • In the case of younger children, if regressions or psychosomatic symptoms appear.

According to Camprodon, when faced with an alarm signal we must observe what is happening and “be attentive”. “It is always important to consult a pediatrician first to rule out an organic problem that explains this situation,” he adds.

What is the treatment?

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, with the involvement of the family, is the intervention that has shown the most effectiveness. “When they are younger, the treatment is more behavioral than cognitive and we always include the parents in the psychological treatment because the parents sometimes, without realizing it, enhance the disorder”, points out this professional.

What can parents do to help a child with anxiety?

It is recommended to help the child to face his fears instead of avoiding them. From Hospital Sant Joan de Déu they advise praising him for every attempt he makes to find a solution, talk to him about what is happening to him and why, help him take deep and slow breaths, maintain a lifestyle healthy, use distraction techniques to focus on other things or give him a hug or hand. Encouraging him to write down what makes him feel anxious, building a “worry box” or designating a specific worry “time” are other strategies that can be applied.


Source: Ara.cat – Portada by criatures.ara.cat.

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