General Anxiety in Children
Childhood is full of stressful events and new experiences, and it's perfectly normal for children to exhibit anxiety in novel situations. Some kids, however, struggle with excessive fears and worries throughout their normal everyday routines. Children who suffer from anxiety across multiple domains like this are said to have a general anxiety disorder (GAD).
Kids with anxiety disorders
Children with general anxiety disorder are natural worriers. They go through life fearing that something bad is about to happen at any moment, and absorb every conceivable threat out there and act upon it as if it is likely to strike them just as soon as they let their guard down.
General anxiety is commonly intertwined with other psychiatric disorders, particularly obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Children with general anxiety frequently develop OCD habits as a ritualistic way of managing their anxiety. For example, they might insist on checking the locks 3 or 4 times to alleviate fears about an intruder breaking in, or repeat things they did on a day that went especially well in the hopes that this will ward off bad luck in the future.
The different degrees of anxiety disorder in children
Cases of general anxiety in children can range from mild to extreme. On the mild end, you have kids who are a little unsure about everything in the world and who worry about things that are unusual for kids their age. In the moderate spectrum, these fears begin to disrupt their functioning. At the extreme end, you have kids who seem like nervous wrecks. They might wake you up regularly to express their worries, and their anxiety causes major disruptions not only in their own life but the lives of parents and siblings.
Problems caused by anxiety disorders in children
A child's anxiety can create several problems that impede their development. First and foremost, all this worry creates extra stress for children, which isn't good for them. Chronic stress can cause physical ailments, impair developing circuits in their brain, and interfere with a child's ability to learn. It's hard to concentrate on academics when you're worried all the time.
Recent research out of Harvard University has found that people who had high phobic anxiety and fears (such as panic disorder or agora phobia) have shorter telomeres as a result of the stress. Telomeres are basically the caps on the end of DNA, and they are a measure of age and health. So essentially, those with unmanaged anxiety disorders age faster and are more likely to have future health problems when compared to people without anxiety. (Rodriguez, 2013)
Anxious children tend to avoid situations that provoke their anxiety, so this can further impede their development by keeping them from experiences that other children have. If a child's anxiety is extreme, it can also create conflict in the home or cause them to be singled out and ostracized by peers. So it's important that parents help these kids learn to manage their symptoms.
Hope for parents of kids with extreme anxiety
Children with severe anxiety can drive their parents bonkers, and it can often seem as though they are one trigger away from a complete psychological breakdown. But the prognosis usually isn't as bleak as it may seem at times. Many children outgrow some of their triggers, and some shed the condition completely. Even when the disorder stays with them, kids can learn ways of managing their symptoms so that they are able to function normally.
Actress Lena Dunham suffered from anxiety and OCD symptoms so severe that her perplexed parents threw in the towel and had her seeing a psychological therapist at the ripe old age of 7. Now she's a successful actress and television writer, creator of the hit TV show Girls. (Hiatt, 2013) So even the most severely symptomatic kids can turn out alright. They just need lots of love, patience, and understanding, along with some guidance in how to manage their condition.