All children and adolescents experience some anxiety as a normal part of growing up. However, when worries and fears are developmentally inappropriate, a disorder may be present.
Anxiety disorders are believed to be caused by biological, family and environmental factors. A chemical imbalance involving two chemicals in the brain (norepinephrine and serotonin) most likely contributes to anxiety disorders. Anxiety also can be learned from others or be triggered by a traumatic experience. The following are some of the more common anxiety disorders.
Separation anxiety disorder (SAD)
SAD is defined as excessive worry and fear about being apart from family members or individuals to whom a child is most attached. Children with SAD fear being lost from their family or fear something bad happening to a family member while they’re apart. Symptoms must last for at least four weeks to be considered SAD. Symptoms of SAD are more severe than the normal separation anxiety that nearly every child experiences to some degree between the ages of 18 months and 3 years of age.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
GAD is defined as chronic, excessive worry and fear that seems to have no real cause. Children or adolescents with GAD often worry a lot about things such as future events, past behaviors, social acceptance, family matters, their personal abilities and/or school performance.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Children with OCD have unreasonable thoughts, fears or worries that they try to manage by performing a ritual activity to reduce the anxiety. Frequently occurring disturbing thoughts or images are called obsessions, and the repeated rituals performed to try to prevent or dispel them are called compulsions. While symptoms of OCD do occur in children, it is recognized as a relatively common mental health disorder in adolescents, with up to 2 to 3 percent of children and adolescents having OCD.
A phobia is an excessive, unreasonable fear or anxiety that is provoked by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation. Common phobias include fear of animals, blood, heights, closed spaces or flying.
PTSD is a debilitating condition that often follows a terrifying physical or emotional event, causing persistent, frightening thoughts and memories (flashbacks) of the ordeal. PTSD can develop immediately or six months or more after an event. Some people with PTSD have long-term emotional effects, and PTSD in children usually becomes a chronic disorder.