Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear that we all feel in difficult or threatening situations. Usually, anxiety can be helpful as it's the body's way of preparing us to deal with stress or keep us alert so we can do our best in challenging situations.
It can be normal for children and adolescents to feel anxious about tests, and relationships with peers. Anxiety becomes a problem when the feelings are too strong and impair the ability to carry on usual daily activities or when the feelings last for too long. Anxiety disorders are amongst the most common mental health conditions in children.
What does anxiety feel like?
A child or young person with anxiety may worry a lot or most of the time. Some children may only feel worries in certain situations but the worry is out of proportion to the difficulty or threat.
Additionally, children and young people with anxiety may:
- Find it hard to concentrate.
- Feel tired and irritable
- Feel tense and fidgety
- Find it hard to sleep or wake up in the night with bad dreams
- Feel low in mood
- Feel unable to stop certain unwanted thoughts
- Avoid situations that they were previously comfortable with
- Be clingy or cry excessively
Anxiety often shows itself in physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, vomiting or need to use the toilet often.
Sometimes, children with anxiety can also have feelings of panic including; feeling hot, sweaty, short of breath, heart pounding or feeling of butterflies in their stomach.
Common anxiety disorders in children and young people
The main types of anxiety disorders seen in children and young people are:
- Generalized anxiety disorder — The child or young person worries excessively about a variety of things daily or near-daily.
- Separation anxiety disorder - Excessive fear of being away from parents or caregivers which is not in keeping with developmental age of the child. This may lead to school refusal.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — This is a type of anxiety disorder where the child or young person gets repetitive, upsetting thoughts and often does repetitive actions to try to relieve the distress caused by those thoughts. A fear of germs leading to constant hand washing is an example but sexual, religious or other themes are also common.
- Panic Disorder — manifest as anxiety with intense physical symptoms, including shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain or numbness with thoughts of impending doom.
- Specific Phobia — an intense fear of specific things or situations that are not dangerous or not as dangerous as the level of fear suggests. The fear is accompanied by an avoidance of the thing or situation.
- Social anxiety or social phobia — intense anxiety of being in social situations, such as speaking in front of the class or attending parties. The child or young person with social anxiety avoids such situations
- Selective mutism — A type of social anxiety in young children where they don't speak in some situations such as school but speak normally in other situations or with select people, e.g., a parent or family members.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — anxiety stemming from a very threatening event or an event that was perceived as very threatening. This is often manifested in nightmares, flashbacks and avoidance of similar situations or events.
What causes my child to feel anxious?
We all have feelings of anxiety occasionally, especially in response to stressors. If your child is preparing for an exam, moving schools or the family is dealing with a stressful situation, he or she may feel anxious or nervous for a limited time. This kind of anxiety will pass once the stressor has passed. When the anxiety resolves, your child feels relaxed again.
For children with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety is chronic and often interferes with their daily life.
Possible causes of anxiety disorders include:
- Some children are born with a genetic predisposition to anxiety and are less able to cope with stress than others
- Learned behaviours picked up from being around anxious people
- Stressful life circumstances
- Experiencing a traumatic event
Treatment for anxiety in children and adolescents in Dubai and Abu Dhabi
An accurate diagnosis and early treatment are important in treating an anxiety disorder. Early treatment minimises the chance of recurrence. Based on your child's symptoms and specific disorder, your child's therapist will design a personalized treatment plan.
Psychological therapy is the first-line treatment for anxiety disorders in children. In some children, where the anxiety disorder is severe or there isn’t enough improvement with psychological therapy, medication can be used alongside psychological therapy. In addition, lifestyle changes such as exercise, improved sleep and dietary habits are also helpful.
Psychological therapy usually consists of either individual cognitive behavioural therapy or family-based cognitive behavioural therapy.
Individual Cognitive Behavioural Therapy:
Children will learn relaxation and coping skills for managing the symptoms of anxiety. They will learn how to change patterns of thinking and reacting to situations. They will often work with a therapist to gradually approach things or situations they may have been avoiding.
Family-based cognitive behavioural therapy
The family meets together with a therapist to develop and carry out a plan for coping with anxious feelings and gradually approaching feared situations.
For some children, your psychiatrist may recommend medication to reduce or prevent the feelings and physical symptoms of anxiety.
Why choose Priory Wellbeing Centre?
Appropriate and early treatment delivered by expert clinicians is crucial to helping a child overcome an anxiety disorder and aids in avoiding a vulnerability to anxiety and depression later on in life.
Our Priory Wellbeing Centres have a specialised Child and Adolescent team comprised of experts who have extensive experience in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of anxiety disorders in children and young people using the latest, evidence-based methods. They ensure that your child has the best individualised care possible to allow your child to thrive in school, at home, in relationships and in daily activities.
For further information about our Children and Adolescent Services call today on: (+971) 4 245 3800 (Dubai) / (+971) 2 651 8111 (Abu Dhabi) or submit an enquiry form in confidence. We will provide you with details on all our treatments and offer help on how to support your child's or teenager's mental health and wellbeing.