Anxiety Disorders in Children, Adolescents & Teens

A Benchmark for Anxiety Disorders in Children

It is normal for children – just like adults – to experience feelings of anxiety. It becomes a problem if the anxiety reaches a point that it interferes with a child’s ability to attend school, spend time with friends, sleep through the night or spend time away from his or her parents.

This article covers three common Anxiety Disorders: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Separation Anxiety Disorder. Each is slightly different, but all are characterized by irrational fear and distress.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in Children

Children or adolescents who suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder feel gripped by excessive and uncontrollable worry. These feelings can trigger physical ailments such as headache, muscular tension, restlessness, heart palpitations and stomach upset.

The causes are as different as the children and adolescents themselves, but often are traced to school performance, sporting events, personal safety and the safety of their family members.

Children with Generalized Anxiety Disorder are often overly self-critical and avoid activities in which they feel they may not be able to perform to perfection. They also tend to seek frequent reassurance from caregivers, teachers and others. Unfortunately, such reassurance provides only fleeting relief from their worries.

It can be difficult for parents to know how to identify Generalized Anxiety Disorder in their child and how to separate it from normal Anxiety. But the disorder is often marked by duration; chronic, excessive worry that lasts a minimum of six months is often a sign of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

Although any term that includes the word “disorder” is bound to trigger worry in parents, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is rather common among children and adolescents as they navigate the sometimes difficult terrain of growing up and maturing. It begins gradually, often in childhood or adolescence, with symptoms that may worsen during times of stress.

If left untreated, the disorder can be chronic and predicative of adulthood Anxiety and Depression. This is why early identification and effective management is vital; it can help reduce the severity of symptoms. Psychotherapeutic approaches, including Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, are among the most researched and promising treatments for Childhood Anxiety. In certain instances, a therapist may recommend medication in combination with psychotherapy.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is characterized by an acute stress response after exposure to an extremely traumatic event. Symptoms usually persist for at least one month and include: avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, emotional numbing, re-experiencing the trauma through recollections of the event in dreams or nightmares, difficulty sleeping, hyper-vigilance, irritability and impaired concentration. PTSD often exists concurrently with depression and anxiety.

Separation Anxiety in Children

Separation anxiety is characterized by excessive distress when a child is about to separate from home or from his or her parents or caretakers. Children with separation anxiety worry about being harmed – or their parents being harmed – in some way. They also can have difficulty sleeping and be plagued by frequent nightmares. It is common for these children to complain of headaches or stomach upset when they know that a separation is on the horizon. Some children are reluctant or refuse to go to school or spend time with friends if a parent or other “safe” adult is not nearby. Separation anxiety can affect a child’s academic and social development. It also can affect the equilibrium of family life if left untreated.

Panic Disorder/Agoraphobia in Children

Panic Disorder is characterized by sudden and repeated episodes of intense fear and discomfort. Symptoms of a panic attack include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, increased heart rate, chest pain, chills or hot flashes and, possibly, fear of dying.

Agoraphobia is when one avoids – or endures with extreme anxiety – certain places or situations for fear of having a panic attack and being unable to escape. For example, a child may avoid leaving home alone, being in a crowd or using public transportation.

Social Anxiety in Children

Avoiding social or performance situations – or enduring them with extreme discomfort – is a mark of Social Anxiety. Fear of being observed, judged and scrutinized by others is a predominant fear. A child may be reluctant to meet and talk with new people in new settings or attend birthday parties, join sports teams and participate in other group activities where his or her peers might be present.

Specific Phobias versus Normal Childhood Fears

There is a big difference between specific phobias and normal childhood fears. Avoiding a specific object or situation – or enduring it with extreme anxiety or discomfort that interferes with daily life – characterizes a Specific Phobia. Persistent fears of animals, elevators, heights, flying, needles and thunder and lightning are common phobias among children. According to the Child Anxiety Network (, some research shows that 90 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 14 have at least one specific fear. Not all fears interfere with daily functioning. Nor do they necessarily merit psychological treatment. Some examples of normal childhood and early adolescent fears include:

  • Infants/Toddlers (up to 2 years old): loud noises, strangers, separation from parents and large objects
  • Preschoolers (3 to 6 years old): imaginary figures (such as ghosts, monsters and supernatural beings), the dark, noises, sleeping alone, thunder and floods
  • School-aged children and adolescents (7 to 16 years old): physical injury, health, school performance, death, thunderstorms, earthquakes and floods

Read more about Phobia-related Disorder, Agoraphobia, and Emetophobia.