What Produces Anxiety in Children?

Anxiety disorders in children are becoming more and more frequent. Therefore, it's important to know what produces anxiety in children.
What Produces Anxiety in Children?

Last update: 29 November, 2022

Although we wish they were, children aren’t exempt from feeling anxiety at intense levels. In fact, this type of disorder has a prevalence of between 3 and 31%, making it one of the most frequent in childhood and adolescence. Keep reading to learn what produces anxiety in children and what you can do about it.

The low level of ability to verbally express feelings or discomfort that infants have notoriously complicates the identification and delimitation of anxiety disorders. In this regard, both preventive work and early diagnosis are fundamental when dealing with childhood anxiety. Let’s see what the main triggering factors are.

Adaptive anxiety or pathological anxiety

First, it’s important to make a caveat: Anxiety can be adaptive or pathological. Let’s see what each one consists of.

Adaptive anxiety

Adaptive anxiety refers to a particularly unpleasant emotion that occurs in all human beings when faced with a situation perceived as threatening. These occur frequently in the daily life of children, for example when faced with an exam, a loud noise at night, or a prank.

In this case, anxiety represents a natural phenomenon that prepares the body to protect its own physical and psychological integrity in potentially risky situations.

Pathological anxiety in children

Pathological anxiety is the excessive reaction to a stimulus perceived as threatening, which includes the sensation of profound physical, emotional, and cognitive discomfort. In turn, it’s a response that tends to be long-lasting and becomes very difficult to control. In the long term, these symptoms damage the development of self-esteem as well as interpersonal functioning.

“Anxiety and anxiety disorders in childhood and adolescence constitute the first psychiatric diagnosis at these ages, well above behavior disorders and depression”.

– Ochando Perales,G., & Peris Cancio, S.P. –

A young boy clinging to his mother's leg.
Children are increasingly susceptible to anxiety disorders from an early age. Many times, they present comorbidity, as several diseases or other psychiatric disorders coexist.

The most common anxiety-related disorders during childhood are the following:

  • Separation anxiety disorder
  • Selective mutism
  • Agoraphobia
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • A specific phobia
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Although these clinical presentations share some relevant aspects with one another, each of them has specific criteria for diagnosis. However, psychotherapy is the treatment of choice in any of these cases. In addition, on specific occasions, pharmacological support is required.

Common causes of anxiety in children

There are some very common triggers that have a negative impact on the psychological well-being of children, which can lead them to develop an anxiety disorder.

Extreme demands and rigid rules at home

Inflexibility in parenting is often associated with the transmission of very high expectations regarding school performance or the general performance of children. Thus, an overload of obligations and their inadequate emotional management is one of the most common causes of anxiety, both in adults and children.

Significant conflicts in family dynamics

The family environment is the first socializing agent and where children need to feel safe. An unfavorable intimate context, with the presence of violence or marked dysfunctional communication, affects little ones. This alters their emotional state and keeps them on permanent alert.

A young boy hugging his father around the neck and looking afraid.
Overprotection is one of the greatest obstacles to the healthy development of children’s autonomy and independence. It transmits excessive fear and convinces the child that they can’t solve situations by themself.

Overprotection

Undoubtedly, excessive protection in the face of life’s adversities intensifies the belief that being away from home makes everything highly risky. It’s then when excessive and disproportionate fears appear. Overprotection leaves important sequelae, as it transmits the belief that the child isn’t capable of dealing with problematic situations on their own.

Exposure to traumatic events

As in adults, the memory of a traumatic experience arouses high levels of stress, distress, and anxiety. Post-traumatic stress d isorder can be triggered by any event that happens to oneself or to a third party, as long as a child interprets that they don’t have sufficient resources to emotionally deal with that situation. The cause could be a serious accident, the loss of a loved one, some kind of abuse, or the witnessing of a natural disaster, among others.

When to seek professional help?

As we can see, the presence of anxiety in children can respond to a simple adaptive response or to a more complex problem. That’s to say, it’s natural for children to show some nervousness and worry from time to time. However, when it becomes so intense that it interferes with different areas of life, such as school development or social aspects, it’s time to consult a specialized professional.

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  • Bragado, C., Bersabé, R., & Carrasco, I. (1999). Factores de riesgo para los trastornos conductuales, de ansiedad, depresivos y de eliminación en niños y adolescentes. Psicothema11(4). https://www.redalyc.org/html/727/72711415/
  • Gold, A. (2006). Trastornos de ansiedad en niños. Archivos de Pediatría del Uruguay77(1), 34-38. Recuperado de http://www.scielo.edu.uy/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1688 12492006000100008&lng=es&tlng=es.
  • Ochando Perales,G., & Peris Cancio, S.P. (2017). Actualización de la ansiedad en la edad pediátrica. Pediatría Integral 2017; XXI (1): 39–46.

The contents of You Are Mom is for educational and informational purposes only. At no time do they replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment from a professional. If in doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.