What causes anxiety in children? A K-12 resource

Mental health is a pertinent topic in today’s society. It’s estimated that 8.2% of children and teens aged 10-19 struggle with some type of anxiety disorder — the most prevalent emotional disorder for this age group. When left unchecked, anxiety can severely impact school performance.

In this blog, we’ll get to the bottom of anxiety in children and teens, unravel its causes, and discuss practical ways you can help students relieve their stress and fear in the classroom for better mental well-being.

What is anxiety?

According to the Mayo Clinic, experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of everyday life. However, people with persistent feelings of intense, excessive worry and fear about everyday situations have what’s called an anxiety disorder. In such cases, these feelings are often difficult to control, are disproportionate to the actual danger or situation, and can stick around for longer than is mentally bearable.

Anxiety disorders are often confused with other, more ordinary emotions like stress and fear. Given the severity of symptoms that those with diagnosed disorders experience, it’s important to make distinctions.

Stress vs. anxiety

While stress and anxiety are both emotional responses, the former stress is triggered by external factors such as taking an exam or getting into an argument. On the other hand, anxiety is created internally and doesn’t usually go away once whatever has triggered it is removed — like it normally does with external stress.

Fear vs. anxiety

Fear is a human’s natural emotional response to a perceived threat. Although they share similar characteristics, anxiety has more to do with the anticipation of a future or potential threat.

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Types of anxiety disorders

There is a spectrum of anxiety disorders, several of which children can be born with or experience throughout their childhood:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): This involves excessive and uncontrollable worry about various aspects of life. For school-aged children, that often means external elements such as going to school itself, interpersonal relationships, and health.
  • Separation anxiety disorder: Primarily diagnosed in children, this disorder involves excessive fear or anxiety about separation from attachment figures, such as parents or caregivers.
  • Social anxiety disorder (social phobia): Individuals with social anxiety disorder have an intense fear of social situations, where they believe they might be judged, embarrassed, or humiliated.
  • Panic disorder: Those with panic disorder experience sudden and recurrent episodes of intense fear, known as panic attacks. These attacks are often accompanied by physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling, and a sense of impending doom.
  • Selective mutism: Typically diagnosed in children, this disorder involves not speaking in certain social situations where speech is expected, such as school. And because it’s deletive, a child with this disorder may be able to speak just fine in other situations, like at home.

Less common conditions (these are normally seen in adults and affect children much less so):

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD develops after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, combat, or assault. Symptoms include intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, and emotional distress.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD is a mental health condition characterized by persistent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors or rituals (compulsions) performed to alleviate anxiety or distress.

Symptoms of anxiety in children
Since anxiety can take many different forms, it can be challenging to notice signs and symptoms in children — especially if you’re not sure what to look for. Each type of anxiety also comes with unique symptoms that can make narrowing it down more difficult.

According to McLean Hospital, it’s essential to be able to recognize potential early signs of an anxiety disorder as soon as possible. The earlier the problem is addressed, the sooner a young person may return to everyday activities.

In children and teens, common symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:

  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Avoiding specific activities, situations, or people.
  • Tendency to focus on what can go wrong.
  • Has fears that interfere with daily activities.
  • Has trouble sleeping at night or alone.
  • Doesn’t eat properly (healthily, regularly, etc.)
  • Worries despite reassurances.
  • Cries frequently.
  • Is unnecessarily clingy.
  • Complaints about feeling unwell or having a tummy ache.

Anxiety can also have physical symptoms, such as:

  • Headaches.
  • Stomach pains.
  • Rapid breathing.
  • Sweating.
  • Tense muscles.
  • Nausea.

Physical signals are often symptomatic of a panic attack and can last anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes. They often happen out of the blue but may have an easily identifiable trigger. Kids who experience panic attacks often feel like they’re losing control, having a heart attack, or are going to die.

Long-term effects of childhood anxiety

Studies have shown that children diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in childhood are more likely to experience the same disorder in adulthood.

Furthermore, long-term anxiety can severely interfere with a child’s personal development, family life, and schooling. Teenagers with an anxiety disorder are more likely to develop clinical depression, misuse drugs, and have suicidal thoughts.

What causes anxiety in children?

Similar to how anxiety disorders manifest differently in each person, the causes of anxiety are equally diverse. In children, anxiety may be attributed to one or a combination of factors that play a role in a child’s “fight or flight” instinct. Some of the more common causes include:

  • Genetics: Anxiety is inheritable. Research has shown that if children and young adults show signs and symptoms of anxiety before they turn 20, it’s likely that one of their parents also suffers from an anxiety-related condition.
  • Brain chemistry (biological factors): If neurotransmitters are not functioning properly or the brain is not producing enough chemicals, it can cause anxiety.
  • Life situations (environmental factors): External factors, such as the social environment that children grow up in and what happens within it, can cause stress that may lead to more severe anxiety down the road.
  • Learned behaviors: Children are extremely impressionable. If a parent or caregiver is anxious or often expresses fear, it can cause children to mirror that behavior.
  • Medication side effects: Various medicines that are used to treat other conditions, such as ADHD or even asthma, can cause anxiety as a side effect.

These factors may be made worse by everyday stressors such as starting at a new school, making friends, or bullying.

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Common myths about student anxiety

Unfortunately, there are a handful of misconceptions about anxiety — and mental health in general — that stagnate progress toward healthier, more emotionally safe environments.

Awareness of those myths and educating staff and students about them is one of the first steps necessary for protection.

Kids can just “stop” being anxious

Anxiety is a deeply rooted emotion. While common triggers for school-aged children, like giving a presentation or social activities such as eating in a cafeteria may seem trivial to others, they are not to the person who has anxiety.

Those who suffer from an anxiety disorder, especially children, need professional help to break cyclical thought patterns and habits that lead to severe anxiousness.

Anxiety isn’t treatable

The misconception that anxiety is not treatable likely stems from the uniqueness of each case. Many reliable and effective treatments exist for different anxiety disorders, however, they’re often not a blanket prescription.

Every individual with anxiety is different and therefore must be treated as such. What works for one child may not work for another. Treating an anxiety disorder takes time and patience.

Kids aren’t anxious, they’re just shy

Shyness and anxiousness are often confused. In simple terms, being shy is essentially a personality trait and quite a normal one for smaller children. On the other hand, being socially anxious is caused by a fear of embarrassment, resulting in avoidant tendencies.

They don’t have anxiety, they’re looking for attention

While many of the symptoms resulting from an anxiety disorder may attract attention, those truly suffering are not seeking scrutiny. In fact, those with anxiety disorders often feel ashamed of their symptoms.

How schools can help

There are many effective and productive ways schools can better understand and support students with anxiety disorders or other mental health conditions.

Connect them to mental health resources

Mental health education is paramount to acceptance. Schools can integrate mental health education into their curriculum in an effort to raise awareness about anxiety and other mental health issues. This can be done through organizing workshops or assemblies to teach students about topics such as stress management, coping strategies, and emotional well-being.

Help teachers understand mental health

Teachers are a catalyst of education. But for them to be able to teach their children about mental health and anxiety, they themselves need to be educated. School boards can help by training teachers, counselors, and other staff members to recognize early signs of anxiety.

Further, school boards may choose to hold workshops or provide resources about how to effectively manage and support anxious students.

Create a safe space where kids can express their anxiety

Supportive learning environments encourage communication and allow students to express how they’re feeling safely can help foster more productive learning. This can include things like validating their feelings, making them feel heard and teaching other students to be inclusive and understanding of their classmates.

Watch out for the warning signs online

Today, a lot of both learning and downtime takes place online. The problem is that it can be hard to notice warning signs of a struggling student without the right tools in place. Offline, it’s a bit easier. Most teachers know to look out for signs such as social withdrawal, isolation, or drug and alcohol abuse.

Online, students struggling with anxiety may research the topic, search for things related to depression, or, in worst-case scenarios even suicide. A cloud monitoring tool can help teachers recognize and remediate these kinds of scenarios sooner by flagging involved users and providing reports about their online activity.

Filter out potential triggers

The internet is rife with harmful, not-safe-for-school content — some of which can be triggering to students with an anxiety disorder. For a learning environment to provide student safety, both physically and emotionally, it’s important to insulate students from those triggers.

Web content filtering tools can help school boards achieve that by providing the technology needed to filter keywords and URLs, create blocklists, and analyze images and text.

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