Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents: What You Need to Know

By Ann Geddes

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem experienced by children and adolescents. More than 30% of youth will develop an anxiety disorder sometime before they turn 18. Yet only 20% of them ever receive treatment. Left untreated, these and other struggles may continue into adulthood. Anxiety disorders can easily be mistaken for the typical fears experienced by all children to a greater or lesser degree, and are often overlooked. Also, sometimes anxiety disorders are misdiagnosed as ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), since some of the symptoms of anxiety disorders are similar to those of ADHD, including inability to concentrate and restlessness.

Anxiety Disorders are classified into five main types: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Social Anxiety or Phobia. To understand more about the symptoms of these various disorders, use this screening tool.

Anxiety disorders are caused by a combination of biological and environmental factors. While events may trigger the development of an anxiety disorder, they can also emerge with no apparent cause. It is important to remember that events that may lead to the development of an anxiety disorder in one child might have less impact on another child. The causes are complex.

Fortunately, most anxiety disorders respond well to treatment. The most commonly used treatment is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. CBT helps children become aware of the ways in which thoughts can influence emotions and behavior. Children are taught to reframe negative thinking and the beliefs. Generally, CBT is a short-term intervention, lasting about 12 weeks.

In addition to CBT, mindfulness practices can significantly reduce the symptoms of anxiety. There are numerous free apps available for children on managing stress and anxiety, which include meditation and mindfulness activities. This article describes some of the ones we at MCF like and have used.

Depending on the severity of the anxiety disorder, and on the extent to which a child responds to other treatments, medications may be added to the treatment. SSRIs (Selective-Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), often referred to as “anti-depressants,” are the most frequently prescribed medication for children and adolescents. They may be given on a short-term basis or used for longer periods, if needed.

Finally, parents and caregivers should know that it is not uncommon for anxiety disorders to co-occur with depression. It’s important to keep a look out for the signs that your child may be experiencing depression. This website offers great resources for families. Treatment for depression can be the same as that for anxiety disorder—CBT, sometimes coupled with SSRI medications, so treatments can easily be used concurrently.

All parents and caregivers should know the symptoms of anxiety disorders in children and adolescents, and remember that they are common and treatable. If you suspect that your child may have an anxiety disorder, talk to their health care provider about an evaluation and treatment options.