Anxiety disorders

November 09, 2016

Worries, fears and anxious behaviour are common amongst most primary school aged children. Most kids tend to handle a range of normal fears and worries that do not impair their daily functioning . In other children, their anxiety may be all encompassing and this is when psychological intervention may be needed. It is estimated that between 2-9% of children in Australia have an anxiety disorder.

When should we seek help?

  • If your childs worries exceed those of other children
  • If your childs worries inhibit them from participating in activities.
  • If your childs worries seem excessive and functioning impairing (i.e., has an impact on their sleep and academics).
  • If your child seems to be avoiding a range of situations.
  • If your child seems to be engaging in excessive reassurance.

The above symptoms suggest that your child may have an anxiety disorder, with the most common disorders being generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias or separation anxiety.

How do anxiety disorders develop?

Humans have a natural survival instinct and are primed to defend ourselves when faced with threat and danger. The physical symptoms of anxiety (including increased heart rate, faster breathing) are designed to help you flee in the face of danger. That is, when faced with a highly threatening or dangerous situation our body reacts by allowing us to avoid or “flight” the situation, or to protect ourselves or “fight” the situation.

Children with an anxious temperament tend to be more sensitive to threats in the environment. They may see threat in situations that are non-threatening and therefore avoid situations in order to protect themselves. There are also often several genetic and familial factors that play a role in inheriting an anxious temperament.

What maintains anxiety?

Generally when a child experiences anxiety there is often a trigger. This could be bedtime, separating from a parent or starting a new day at school. Although some children may not yet be able to vocalize “why” they are worried, there is often a perception of threat underlying the worry. For example a child who is afraid of sleep may think “monsters will come get me at night”. This triggers the bodies “fight/ flight response” which prompts the child to take action. Therefore a child may engage in avoidant behaviours (for example refuse to go to sleep) or engage in a safety behaviour (for example cling to their parent). Both behaviour attempts are successful at reducing your child’s anxiety, but long term creates a vicious cycle of anxiety. The child never learns that their beliefs are incorrect, and that they do not need to engage in a behaviour in order to reduce their anxiety.


How do we treat anxiety disorders?

Cognitive behavioural therapy is the best evidence based approach for treating anxiety disorders. Cognitive therapy is designed to provide strategies to deal with maladaptive thinking patterns. Children are taught about how their thinking effects their behaviour, and they learn strategies to challenge unhelpful thinking patterns. Behaviour therapy is designed to break down the avoidant / safety behaviours and encourage your child to take small steps to face their fear.

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All comments (1)
  • Mia Evans
    October 19, 2023 at 7:54 am

    Thanks for pointing out that there is usually a trigger when someone experiences anxiety. It seems like it is important to determine or identify those […] Read MoreThanks for pointing out that there is usually a trigger when someone experiences anxiety. It seems like it is important to determine or identify those triggers when getting anxiety treatment from a professional so that it can be addressed or managed the right way. This is something that my sister should know because it seems like she is showing the signs of that kind of condition, and she might have to see a professional to get a diagnosis the finally address the issues and have a more comfortable life. Read Less


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