Anxiety Disorders in Children: a family affair

According to the Surgeon General, anxiety disorders affect approximately 13% of children. Some diagnoses that reflect a problem with anxiety are: Generally Anxiety Disorder, Social Phobia, Avoidant Personality Disorder, and Panic Disorder. All of these show similar symptoms of anxious feelings, sweaty palms, pounding heart, increased respiratory out put, sick or sore stomach, and other symptoms. 

What is the cause of anxiety disorders? It’s not fully understood, but we do know that anxiety disorders tend to run in families—probably a mixture of environmental upbringing and heredity. 

There is also a correlation between anxiety disorders and children that have trouble sleeping. Sometimes it is hard to know what came first, the chicken or the egg. But children that have trouble sleeping tend to have higher levels of stress during the day, which increases stress hormones like Cortisol. Cortisol tends to deplete Serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter, which sets them up for problems like anxiety or depression. 

When I see a child for anxiety, I test the parents as well. More than not, I find at least one parent that will also be experiencing anxiety. I will also note that the parent tends to have an “anxious parent” type of parenting style. This is shown by a tendency of over-protectiveness and a tendency towards elevated expressed emotion when stressed. Unfortunately, too often a child learns from this parent how to experience and deal with the world. If the parent has a highly reactive style towards spiders, for example, the child often will also. 

I also would like to note the correlation between anxiety and frequent illness. If you see your child getting sick a lot and missing school you might want to go get your child checked for an anxiety disorder with your Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner or Psychiatrist. They are often missed. Thousands of dollars later you may find that your child has an anxiety disorder and not an ulcer!

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