So how do you know when a child’s anxiety goes beyond the normal stresses of everyday life? Here are some general guidelines for distinguishing between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder.
Signs of anxiety disorder:
What parents should look for
1. A child complains of chronic headaches or stomachaches, even though no apparent medical cause can be found. These are common psychosomatic symptoms, meaning that psychological distress is causing physical symptoms in the body.
2. A child develops rituals aimed at relieving anxiety, such as a girl who has her mother kiss her eyes 3 times before bedtime, or ensuring dad adjusts the door properly at just the right angle. They may feel a need to touch different parts of the bed before going to sleep, or demand that their parents tell them precisely what they’ll do the next day.
3. A child maintains elaborate plans for self-protection: Feeling a need to walk home over a certain route; turning on all the lights in the house once they come home; checking and rechecking all the doors and windows to ensure they are locked; searching for special hiding spots to have at the ready; and so on. Such rituals indicate that a child is feeling very anxious and afraid.
4. A child has multiple fears across multiple categories that are seemingly unrelated to each other.
5. Whereas normal children will exhibit anxiety in new situations, a child with an anxiety disorder tends to experience ongoing worries in regards to everyday events and normal routines.
6. A child’s fears prevent them from doing things that other kids their age can normally do, such as make friends, talk to strange people, manage the demands of school or attend sleepovers.
7. A child seems to never run out of ‘what if’ questions. For example, they incessantly ask things like: “What if there’s a fire? What if the plane crashes? What if they boo and tease me?” Children who commonly ask questions such as this are often struggling with a great deal of anxiety, even if they don’t let on about it.
8. A child seems irritable, cranky, or always on the edge. They may find it difficult to remain emotionally stable and might appear to parents as being bipolar or having a mood disorder.
The diagnosis of child anxiety disorder
In order to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, children must experience excessive worry and anxiety on more days than not for a period of at least 6 months. A therapist or child psychologist will typically look for the presence of some of the symptoms just mentioned, and consider the impact it is having on their life in determining whether this anxiety is excessive.
Does my child have an anxiety disorder?
Basically, it comes down to whether excess anxiety is interfering with their functioning, keeping them from doing things they otherwise might do, or keeping them stuck in a chronic state of stress. Is it keeping a child awake at night and interfering with sleep? Do they find it hard to concentrate? Does a child seem to have a lot of distress?
“Does the level of fear and anxiety that my child has prevent them from doing things that other children my child’s age can do?” asks Dr. Daniel S. Pine of the National Institute of Mental Health. If so, “then parents should think about having their child evaluated.” (Peterson, 2008)