Anxiety in Children

Medicine healthcare syringe injecting scared child

Anxiety in Children: Disorders, Phobias, OCD

Specific Phobia – What is it?

Specific Phobia is characterised by a marked and persistent fear of particular objects and/or situations. Commonly feared objects in childhood include needles, spiders, darkness, heights and thunderstorms, while situational phobias may include public transportation (e.g., buses, planes, trains), elevators and enclosed spaces. Exposure to these objects and/or situations usually produces an excessive anxiety response from children that is deemed age-inappropriate.

What are the symptoms?

Clinical-level phobias commonly co-occur with each other in young children and are usually accompanied by anxious behaviours (e.g., crying, screaming, clinging), physical symptoms (e.g., increased heart rate, sweating) and marked avoidance of the feared stimuli. Phobic disorders typically emerge early in life, around seven years of age, and are one the most common anxiety disorders in children.

How do you know when it’s a problem?

Although it is common for young children to be scared of specific objects and situations (such as needles, spiders and the dark), for some children their fears are greater than that of same-age peers, and interferes with everyday activities. Their fears may also stop them from doing things they might like to be able to do.


What can treatment do?

Although anxiety disorders (such as specific phobias) are common in children and adolescents, there is substantial amount of evidence to demonstrate that we can successfully treat them. At the forefront of effective treatments is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT); a short-term, focused approach that aims to bring about changes in a child’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours. In addition to bringing about change in these areas, children are also taught effective coping skills when they encounter their feared object in a safe, gradual fashion.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder – What is it?

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (or GAD) is characterised by excessive and uncontrollable worry about numerous topics. Children and adolescents with GAD typically worry about a wide range of issues including their safety (e.g. “What if a robber breaks into our house?”), the future (e.g. “What if I don’t get into university?”), family issues (e.g. family finances, parental separation), the health of themselves and significant others, performance based activities (e.g. sporting activities and musical events) and school work.

What are the symptoms?

Parents of children with GAD often describe their children as “worry warts” or “little adults” because of the excessive adult-like nature of the child’s worries. GAD worries are often expressed in the form of “what if” questions such as “…What if I didn’t lock the gate at home?…”; and children with GAD often seek excessive amount of reassurance from their primary care-givers.

How do you know when it is a problem?

Although worry is a common phenomenon experienced by children, adolescents, and adults, individuals with GAD consistently report more frequent and intense worries. Sometimes, however, symptoms of GAD may go unnoticed by parents and school teachers because children with GAD are often well-behaved, eager to please and are not disruptive in the classroom. Children with GAD generally set extremely high and unachievable academic goals, are overly perfectionistic in all aspects of their work, are plagued by high levels of self-doubt and often worry about failing a test or assignment despite a lack of evidence supporting their fears.

What can treatment do?

Although GAD is common in young people, the good news is that we can successfully treat this condition. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is a short-term, focused approach that aims to bring about changes in a child’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours. In addition to bringing about change in these areas, children with GAD are also taught how to cope with change, the inevitable uncertainty in everyday life, unrealistic perfectionistic ideals, as well as practical strategies to manage every day worries.

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Clinical Psychologist
Clinical Psychologist