The Treatment of Childhood Anxiety

Anxiety disorders in children are the most common pediatric mental health problem. Learn about the treatment of childhood anxiety.
The Treatment of Childhood Anxiety
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 31 December, 2022

We often think that mental health is a matter for adults, that children have a simple and happy life, and that all their fears are temporary. However, anxiety in children is much more present than we think. These symptoms can even affect their well-being, academic performance, and social relationships. Moreover, if they’re not addressed in time, they’re likely to become chronic. For this reason, we want to talk to you about the treatment of childhood anxiety.

Anxiety disorders in children are the leading psychiatric diagnosis in this age group and affect between 3% and 31% of children. If your child has inappropriate fears or worries that cause them great discomfort, they may need professional support. Fortunately, there are very effective therapeutic strategies available when it comes to the treatment of childhood anxiety.

The main anxiety disorders in children

First of all, it’s important to remember that there are different anxiety disorders, with different causes, symptoms, and approaches. The main anxiety disorders that can occur in the pediatric population are as follows:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive and persistent worry that’s very difficult for children to control. The child experiences worry and anxiety about a wide variety of issues, but to a disproportionate degree.
  • Separation anxiety disorder (SAD): When the time comes for the child to be separated from parents or caregivers, they experience a great deal of distress that interferes with daily life. In addition, they experience a recurrent fear of something happening to these adults.
  • Specific phobias: Defined as an intense and disproportionate fear of certain stimuli (animals, situations, or events). The child does everything possible to avoid them or endures them with great discomfort.
  • Social phobia: In this case, it’s social interactions that act as a stimulus for anxiety. As a result, there’s a great fear of being judged, which prevents the child from socializing appropriately.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Characterized by the presence of intrusive thoughts that cause fear and distress (obsessions) and behaviors aimed at alleviating that discomfort (compulsions).
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder: Arises in response to a traumatic experience and manifests itself in nightmares and uncontrollable flashbacks of the event, as well as a constant presence of negative emotions and a need to avoid everything related to the trauma.
Anxiety in children can affect the way they think, feel, behave, and relate to others. It goes beyond fear, nervousness, or shyness in children, so it’s key to accompany them and seek professional help.

Discover what the treatment of childhood anxiety looks like

As you can see, there are multiple anxiety disorders that can occur in children. For the same reason, the approach will be different depending on each case. However, there are some general guidelines that apply to all conditions. Several investigations have shown that cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most effective in treating anxiety disorders in children. It’s based on the assumption that thoughts and behaviors are directly related to emotions and, therefore, by modifying the former, we can achieve changes in the latter. Thus, cognitive-behavioral interventions are focused on three levels that we’ll see below.

Physiological manifestations

Anxiety often manifests itself through physiological and bodily symptoms such as sweating, tachycardia, nausea, or psychosomatic pain. Training in relaxation techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, is used to teach children to regulate their anxiety levels.

Thoughts and cognitions

It’s difficult for young children to identify, express, and modify their thoughts. However, from the age of 9, it’s possible to use techniques, such as cognitive restructuring, which allow young people to adjust irrational thoughts that cause anxiety and replace them with more functional ones.

Behaviors

Exposure is one of the most commonly used techniques. It consists of bringing children closer to the situations that generate anxiety, gradually, so that the discomfort begins to decrease.

A preteen boy feeling anxious.
Anxiety often leads children and adolescents to avoid certain stimuli. However, this only increases the fear, as it prevents children from being able to verify that the situation’s really harmless.

Other aspects to consider in the treatment of anxiety in children

In addition to applying the techniques mentioned above, psychoeducation is essential. In other words, it’s important to explain to the child and their family what’s going on and why, how anxiety works, and how you’re going to deal with it. In this way, not only is understanding achieved but also the involvement of the parents and their collaboration during the treatment.

At the same time, in some cases, it may be necessary to accompany the psychotherapy with medication. Several studies have shown that the most effective drugs to reduce anxiety symptoms are Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). However, psychotherapy is very much needed to teach little ones how to cope with their long-term difficulties and provide them with new ways of thinking and interpreting reality.

Anxiety disorders are common in little ones

In short, anxiety disorders in children are more common than we think. If you identify any possible signs in your children, don’t overlook them and seek professional guidance. There are effective treatments, and if they’re not applied, the problem can last even into adulthood.

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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.