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Anxiety in children and adolescents: Signs and how to intervene

Anxiety is a natural response of the human body when it experiences stressful situations, such as speaking in public, taking a test or facing a challenge. However, when this response becomes excessive, persistent, and interferes with a child or adolescent's daily life, it can be a sign of an anxiety disorder.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety disorders affects about 32% of adolescents in the United States. Anxiety can affect their ability to concentrate, communicate and interact with others. It can also affect their physical health, and can lead to them experiencing sleep disturbances, headaches, and gastrointestinal problems.

Also the World Health Organization (WHO), reports that about 10% of children and adolescents worldwide suffer from anxiety disorders.

In this article, we will explore the causes, symptoms, prevention and intervention in this population in particular.

Causes of anxiety in children and adolescents

Anxiety can have multiple causes, related to genetic, environmental, and psychological factors.

Some children may have a genetic predisposition to develop anxiety disorders, while others may develop anxiety in response to stressful events, such as a parental divorce, changing schools, death of a loved one, abuse, or violence.

In addition, anxiety can be triggered by psychological issues, such as low self-esteem, perfectionism, catastrophic thinking, lack of social and problem-solving skills, among others.

Parenting style can also influence the experience of anxiety in children and adolescents, with parenting styles characterized by greater overprotection, constant criticism, lack of boundaries and clear rules being associated with a greater likelihood of the child or adolescent experiencing anxiety.

Symptoms of anxiety in children and adolescents

Symptoms of anxiety can vary depending on the age and personality of the child or adolescent. However, some common symptoms include:

  • Excessive worry about the future or the past

  • Fear or avoidance of social or school situations

  • Irritability or impatience

  • Difficulty sleeping or experiencing frequent nightmares

  • Sudden mood swings or angry outbursts

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Headaches, stomachaches, nausea, dizziness, or tremors

Anxiety prevention in children and adolescents

Prevention of anxiety in children and adolescents can involve early identification of risk factors, as well as teaching social and emotional skills to cope with stress.

Parents can help their children develop resilience and self-confidence skills by encouraging them to face challenges and deal with frustration and defeat. In addition, parents should encourage a balance between study time and leisure activities, such as play and exercise.

Treatment for anxiety in children and adolescents

Treatment of anxiety in children and adolescents can be based on cognitive-behavioral therapy, pharmacology, or a combination of both. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a therapeutic approach that helps children and adolescents to identify negative and distorted automatic thoughts that fuel anxiety, and teaches skills to modify those thoughts or the relationship they have with them, and change anxiety-responsive behaviors. CBT can also help children and adolescents develop social and emotional skills to deal with challenging situations and solve problems effectively.

In some cases, medication may be necessary. The most commonly prescribed medications include antidepressants, anxiolytics, or beta-blockers. However, it is important to remember that medication should always be prescribed by a physician and accompanied by appropriate therapy and monitoring.

In addition to therapy and medication, parents and family members can help children and adolescents cope with anxiety by providing emotional support and encouraging their participation in activities that promote relaxation and well-being, such as yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises. It is important to remember that each child or adolescent is unique and treatment should be tailored to the individual needs presented.

Here are some additional tips to help children and adolescents cope with anxiety:

  • Teach them deep breathing and relaxation techniques

  • Help them identify negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones

  • Promote physical activity and healthy eating

  • Limit children's exposure to negative or violent news, especially before bedtime

  • Encourage hobbies and fun activities to help children and adolescents distract themselves and find enjoyment in activities

  • Be available to listen and support your children, without judgment or criticism

It is important that parents do not devalue their children's anxiety symptoms or pressure them to "overcome" anxiety. Instead, parents should validate their emotions and encourage them to seek professional help if necessary.

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