School Psychology

Anxiety In Children

October 23, 2017

Imagine if you constantly worried? Imagine if you dreaded coming to school every day?  Imagine if you felt trapped inside your own head? This is how some students with anxiety feel.

Anxiety is commonly experienced by adults and children. It serves to alert us to danger mainly through worry which causes fear that something bad will happen in the future.  In many situations it is a normal reaction to stressful events.  However, for some this worry is so extreme in relation to the actual situation.  Children who are anxious are more likely to view small events as threatening.  For example, giving presentations makes us all a little anxious but to a child who suffers from anxiety they may think it will be a total disaster.

In order to deal with this extreme anxiety children who are anxious will exhibit avoidance behaviors where they will withdraw, pick easier tasks, and avoid tasks and situations where they may fail.  They may feel uncomfortable in socially new situations, avoid socializing in groups, and avoid talking to others.  These students can worry about how they are viewed socially and fear that others do not like them.

What are children anxious about?

Around ages 2 to 8, Anxiety is mostly related to fears of strangers, new situations, animals, the dark, loud noises, falling, and injury. These are all specific events or triggers.

Around age 8, children start to become more anxious and worry about more social and abstract issues including, friends, social acceptance, the future, moral issues, etc. The majority of students will cope with these issues; however, some develop severe anxiety.

Is your student’s anxiety typical or not? Use the following 3 questions as a start:

  1. Is it excessive or not typical for the age or developmental level?
  2. Is it a frequent occurrence of an inappropriate or extreme reaction for the situation?
  3. Has it lasted for several weeks or months?

A child with anxiety may exhibit some of the following characteristics: difficulty concentrating, worry, lack of participation, fidgeting, irritable, perfectionistic, physical complaints, flushed skin, rapid speaking, or sleeping problems.  If you feel a student is struggling with anxiety reach out to your school’s mental health professionals, including the school psychologist or school counselor.

Around 3 to 20 percent of children and adolescents have anxiety disorders.  This is when a student has a pattern of anxiety that is causing them significant distress and impairment.  Anxiety disorders can be linked to genetics, brain differences, temperament, family factors, life events, etc. For elementary students, boys and girls are just as likely to have anxiety disorders, while in adolescence girls become more likely than boys to have an anxiety disorder.  There are several types of anxiety disorders including:

  1. Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) – this is specific to children and consists of being afraid to leave familiar people, most often parents. They may refuse to leave home or go to school.
  2. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – this consists of high levels of anxiety over many different situations (i.e., there is no specific trigger). It is the most common anxiety disorder for children.  It is likely to continue into adulthood.  These students may be very perfectionistic and concerned about doing things correctly.  They may worry about very minor things and can appear stressed most of the time.  The majority of these individuals needs professional intervention.
  3. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – this is associated with anxiety caused by a traumatic event (e.g., violent crimes, car accident, home fire, natural disaster, domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, etc.). Some symptoms are avoidance, withdrawal, sleep difficulties, anger, flashbacks, and difficulty with concentrating.  Some students diagnosed with ADHD may truly have PTSD.
  4. Social Anxiety Disorder- this consists of an excessive anxiety and fear of social situations where one is evaluated by people. Typically this is not diagnosed until adolescence or early adulthood; however, signs of shyness can be observed around 2 or 3 years of age.  There is normally not a specific triggering event.

While receiving outside treatment is vital to many students there are many things we can do at school to support students with anxiety.  In the classroom, establishing a predictable routine, setting clear and reasonable expectations, and breaking tasks down can help alleviate anxiety.  Pairing an anxious student with a confident and supportive peer but giving them time to relax when anxiety is increased.  These students need practice and rehearsal and try to avoid unexpected situations.  These students may perform better in a quiet setting with less distractions.  Timed conditions often increase anxiety so limit time constraints.   As your student’s teacher you are their number one advocate at school so do not hesitate to contact the mental health professionals in your building for guidance and support.

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