We welcomed guest contributor Lindsay Simmons, a local family therapist and social worker to share her knowledge on anxiety affecting children and teens. In this three-part series, we'll explore common types of anxiety, red flags to look out for and finally how to help your child and the community resources available to you.
Part 1: Types of Anxiety Common in Children and Teens
It’s easy to understand why parents get so confused when learning about anxiety. The symptoms can all sound the same and the behaviours don’t always make sense. For this reason, mental health professionals have created different categories of anxiety. If you think your child is being affected by anxiety, read the list below. The more you are able to learn about your child’s experience with anxiety, the better equipped you will be to help them through this obstacle.
The most common types of anxiety affecting kids and teens are:
1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): GAD is a constant, pervasive sense of worry that never seems to go away. There is nothing too big or too small for these kids to worry about. They seem to be always on the lookout for the next thing to worry about. These are the kids who are often described as “worry warts” as they seem unable to relax and are plagued by unrealistic fears about normal routine events.
2. Specific Phobias: These are characterized by an intense fear of a specific object/situation. Children and youth with specific phobias will function fine until they encounter their anxiety trigger, for example, dogs or needles. The fear that is experienced upon encountering these triggers is so intense that these kids will go out of their way to avoid coming into contact with the feared item. Avoidance becomes their best friend.
3. Social Anxiety/Phobia: This is an intense fear of social or performance situations. Unfortunately, these kids are so intensely afraid of social situations, that they end up spending a lot of time alone - or worse, they can become the target of bullies. This is because they are too timid and shy to stand up for themselves.
4. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD is the body’s response to being exposed to a seriously traumatic event. These children and teens often suffer from unwanted, intrusive recollections of the traumatizing event. They can also have nightmares, and an overall increased level of physical reactivity.
5. Panic Attacks/Disorder: If you have ever experienced a panic attack, you know how terrifying they can be. The classic symptoms of a panic attack - pounding heart, sweating, shaking, numbness, chest pain, choking sensations and many others – are all brought on by an intense sympathetic nervous system reaction. These attacks can be independent or related to another anxiety disorder, and they typically last roughly 10 minutes.
6. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): While we tend to think of OCD as being a “neat freak”, the reality is much more complex. OCD involves an overlap between involuntary Obsessions and a corresponding Compulsion. An Obsession is often an intrusive and distressing thought or image, for example, “I’m going to get sick”. This obsession is so stressful to the individual, that a ritualistic Compulsive behavior is used to prevent it from happening, for example, hand washing. While we all have little rituals – the person with OCD will feel compelled to engage in their ritual. They won’t be able to focus on anything else until the ritual is complete, and they will become very agitated if the ritual is interrupted – because the ritual is the only way to protect them from the unwanted Obsessive thought (“I’m going to get sick”).
It is also important to know that people living with anxiety, often experience more than one type of anxiety at a time. For example, your child may have Social Anxiety and a Specific Phobia to deal with at the same time.
The good news is that mental health professionals now know more about anxiety and its related disorders than we ever did before – and there is help for everyone. By gaining an understanding of the type of anxiety your child or teen may be dealing with, you will be better able to access the resources needed to help them.
If you're concerned your child may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, Lindsay welcomes you to set up a free 15-minute phone consultation with her to discuss your questions in more detail.