Fears are an inevitable part of childhood. The process of adjusting to changing routines in an ever-changing world can cause tension and nervousness. The question is, when are your child’s fears developmentally appropriate and when do they call for professional intervention?

When it comes to anxiety disorders, children suffer from similar forms of anxiety to adults; however, their symptoms often differ, and typically vary according to their age. It is often hard for parents or caregivers to know exactly what is going on with our children. Children tend to be less verbal than adults and often express their anxiety physically in the form of stomachaches, vomiting, or headaches. They may burst out crying or react violently without being able to express why.

Two anxiety disorders are particularly typical in children:

Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
A fear of being abandoned by a parent or caregiver is normal in the early years of childhood. In general children develop stranger anxiety at about seven months and prefer to be held by their mother or father. The infants will begin to cry and exhibit signs of distress when their primary caretaker leaves the room. By age 3-4 a child is usually able to cope with short periods of separation from their parents. However, some continue to experience separation anxiety well into their older years, and and this can impair their social and educational functioning. Until recently SAD was only diagnosed among children (under 18), but it is now understood to appear in adults as well, though more rarely. Symptoms of SAD include recurrent and excessive stress when anticipating or experiencing separation from a parent, caretaker, or partner, and fears that something terrible might happen to them.

School Refusal
A fear of attending school is another form of anxiety characteristic of childhood. This behavior may stem from fear of abandonment, peer pressure, or academic difficulty. Parents may incorrectly interpret this behavior as laziness. It is important to remember that this may be a very real fear that requires evaluation and treatment.

Anxiety in Adolescents
Young people face many new challenges during adolescence. They must cope with rigorous academic demands, a complex social milieu, and rapid physical changes. These challenges can cause social and academic anxiety. Adolescence is also a time during which anxiety disorders typical of adults begin to develop, for example, panic disorders. In many cases the adolescent is unable to articulate the fear they are experiencing, so it may be expressed through rebellious behavior or violence. Often anxiety disorders cause depression or lead to the use of alcohol or other addictive substances, or to truancy.

When to seek professional help?
You should seek professional help for your child if one or more of the following conditions exists:

  1. If your child experiences emotional distress or prolonged sadness, or frequent mood swings.
  2. If day-to-day functioning is impaired, either at school or amongst friends.
  3. If there is a change in eating habits, for example self-starvation or overeating, for an extended period of time.
  4. If your child displays a sudden dramatic change in his behavior, either by acting violently or by secluding themselves for long periods of time.
  5. If the child shows regressive behaviors more appropriate to earlier stages of development, such as thumb-sucking in children or a fear of abandonment among adolescents, and which persist over an extended period of time.

It is important to note that children’s behavior and moods may fluctuate over the course of their development. The signs mentioned here are usually, but not always, distress signals. If they do not pass within a short period of time then it’s a good idea to meet with a counselor. Turn to your child’s school psychologist or to mental health workers in your community to receive guidance regarding how to best help your child.