Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders in Children: Information for Parents
By Thomas J. Huberty, PhD, NCSP
Anxiety is a common experience to all of us on an almost daily basis. Often, we use terms like jittery,
high strung, and uptight to describe anxious feelings. Feeling anxious is normal and can range from very
low levels to such high levels that social, personal, and academic performance is affected. At moderate
levels, anxiety can be helpful because it raises our alertness to danger or signals that we need to take
some action. Anxiety can arise from real or imagined circumstances. For example, a student may
become anxious about taking a test (real) or be overly concerned that he or she will say the wrong thing
and be ridiculed (imagined). Because anxiety results from thinking about real or imagined events,
almost any situation can set the stage for it to occur.
There are many definitions of anxiety, but a useful one is apprehension or excessive fear about real
or imagined circumstances. The central characteristic of anxiety is worry, which is excessive concern
about situations with uncertain outcomes. Excessive worry is unproductive, because it may interfere
with the ability to take action to solve a problem. Symptoms of anxiety may be reflected in thinking,
behavior, or physical reactions.
Anxiety and Development
Anxiety is a normal developmental pattern that is exhibited differently as children grow older. All of
us experience anxiety at some time and cope with it well, for the most part. Some people are anxious
about specific things, such as speaking in public, but are able do well in other activities, such as social
interactions. Other people may have such high levels of anxiety that their overall ability to function is
impaired. In these situations, counseling or other services may be needed.
Infancy and preschool. Typically, anxiety is first shown at about 7–9 months, when infants
demonstrate stranger anxiety and become upset in the presence of unfamiliar people. Prior to that time,
most babies do not show undue distress about being around strangers. When stranger anxiety emerges,
it signals the beginning of a period of cognitive development when children begin to discriminate
among people. A second developmental milestone occurs at about 12–18 months, when toddlers
demonstrate separation anxiety. They become upset when parents leave for a short time, such as going
out to dinner. The child may cry, plead for them not to leave, and try to prevent their departure. Although
distressing, this normal behavior is a cue that the child is able to distinguish parents from other adults
and is aware of the possibility they may not return. Ordinarily, this separation anxiety is resolved by age
2, and the child shows increasing ability to separate from parents. Both of these developmental periods
are important and are indicators that cognitive development is progressing as expected.
School age. At preschool and early childhood levels, children tend to be limited in their ability to
anticipate future events, but by middle childhood and adolescence these reasoning skills are usually well
developed. There tends to be a gradual change from global, undifferentiated, and externalized fears to
more abstract and internalized worry. Up to about age 8 children tend to become anxious about specific,
identifiable events, such as animals, the dark, imaginary figures (monsters under their beds), and of
larger children and adults. Young children may be afraid of people that older children find entertaining,
such as clowns and Santa Claus. After about age 8, anxiety-producing events become more abstract and
less specific, such as concern about grades, peer reactions, coping with a new school, and having
friends. Adolescents also may worry more about sexual, religious, and moral issues, as well how they
compare to others and if they fit in with their peers. Sometimes, these concerns can raise anxiety to
When anxiety becomes excessive beyond what is
expected for the circumstances and the child’s
developmental level, problems in social, personal, and
academic functioning may occur, resulting in an anxiety
disorder. The signs of anxiety disorders are similar in
children and adults, although children may show more
signs of irritability and inattention. The frequency of
anxiety disorders ranges from about 2 to 15% of
children and occurs somewhat more often in females.
There are many types of anxiety disorders, but the most
common ones are listed below.
Separation anxiety disorder. This pattern is
characterized by excessive clinging to adult caretakers
and reluctance to separate from them. Although this
pattern is typical in 12–18-month-old toddlers, it is not
expected of school-age children. This disorder may
indicate some difficulties in parent-child relationships
or a genuine problem, such as being bullied at school. In
those cases, the child may be described as having
school refusal, sometimes called school phobia.
Occasionally, the child can talk about the reasons for
feeling anxious, depending on age and language skills.
Generalized anxiety disorder. This pattern is
characterized by excessive worry and anxiety across a
variety of situations that does not seem to be the result
of identified causes.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This pattern often
is discussed in the popular media and historically has
been associated with soldiers who have experienced
combat. It is also seen in people who have experienced
traumatic personal events, such as loss of a loved one,
physical or sexual assault, or a disaster. Symptoms may
include anxiety, flashbacks of the events, and reports of
seeming to relive the experience.
Social phobia disorder. This pattern is seen in
children who have excessive fear and anxiety about
being in social situations, such as in groups and crowds.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Characteristics
include repetitive thoughts that are difficult to control
(obsessions) or the uncontrollable need to repeat
specific acts, such as hand washing or placing objects in
the same arrangement (compulsions).
Characteristics of Anxiety
Although the signs of anxiety vary in type and
intensity across people and situations, there are some
symptoms that tend to be rather consistent across
anxiety disorders and are shown in cognitive, behavioral,
and physical responses. Not all symptoms are exhibited
in all children or to the same degree. All people show
some of these signs at times, and it may not mean that
anxiety is present and causing problems. Most of us are
able to deal with day-to-day anxiety quite well, and
significant problems are not common. The chart at the
end of the handout demonstrates behaviors that, if
present to a significant degree, can indicate anxiety that
needs attention. As a parent, you may be the first person
to suspect that your child has significant anxiety.
Relationship to Other Problems
Although less is known about how anxiety is related
to other problems as compared to adults, there are some
Depression. Anxiety and depression occur together
about 50–60% of the time. When they do occur together,
anxiety most often precedes depression, rather than the
opposite. When both anxiety and depression are present,
there is a higher likelihood of suicidal thoughts, although
suicidal attempts are far less frequent.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. At times,
anxiety may appear similar to behaviors seen with
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). For
example, inattention and concentration difficulties are
often seen in children with ADHD and with children who
have anxiety. Therefore, the child may have anxiety
rather than ADHD. Failing to identify anxiety accurately
may explain why some children do not respond as
expected to medications prescribed for ADHD. The age
of the child when the behaviors were first observed can
be a useful index for determining if anxiety or ADHD is
present. The signs of ADHD usually are apparent by age
4 or 5, whereas anxiety may not be seen at a high level
until school entry, when children may respond to
demands with worry and needs for perfectionism. A
thorough psychological and educational evaluation by
qualified professionals will help to determine if the
problem is ADHD or anxiety. If evaluation or
consultation is needed, developmental information
about the problem will be useful to the professional.
School performance. Children with anxiety may
have difficulties with school work, especially tasks
requiring sustained concentration and organization.
They may seem forgetful, inattentive, and have difficulty
organizing their work. They may be too much of a
perfectionist and not be satisfied with their work if it
does not meet high personal standards.
Substance use. What appears to be anxiety may be
manifestations of substance use, which may begin as
early as the pre-teen years. Children who are abusing
drugs or alcohol may show sleep problems, inattention,
withdrawal, and reduced school performance. Although
substance abuse is less likely with younger children, the
possibility increases with age.
Anxiety is a common experience for children, and,
most often, professional intervention is not needed. If
anxiety is so severe that your child cannot do expected
tasks, however, then intervention may be indicated.
Does My Child Need Professional Help?
Answering the following questions may be helpful in
deciding if your child needs professional help:
- Is the anxiety typical for a child this age?
- Is the anxiety shown in specific situations or is it
- Is the problem long term or is it recent?
- What events may be contributing to the problems?
- How are personal, social, and academic
If the anxiety is atypical for the child’s age, is long
standing, does not seem to be improving, and is causing
significant problems, then it is advisable to talk with a
professional, such as the school psychologist or
counselor, who might recommend a referral to a
community mental health professional. Individual
counseling, or even group or family counseling, may be
used to help the child deal with school, family, or personal
issues that are related to the anxiety. In some cases, a
physician may recommend medication. Although
medication for childhood disorders is not well researched
and side effects must be monitored, this treatment may
be helpful when combined with counseling approaches.
How Can I Help My Child?
Although professional intervention may be
necessary, the following list may be helpful to parents in
working with the child at home:
- Be consistent in how you handle problems and
- Remember that anxiety is not willful misbehavior,
but reflects an inability to control it. Therefore, be
patient and be prepared to listen. Being overly
critical, disparaging, impatient, or cynical likely will
only make the problem worse.
- Maintain realistic, attainable goals and expectations
for your child. Do not communicate that perfection
is expected or acceptable. Often, anxious children
try to please adults, and will try to be perfect if they
believe it is expected of them.
- Maintain a consistent, but flexible, routine for
homework, chores, and activities.
- Accept mistakes as a normal part of growing up,
and that no one is expected to do everything
equally well. Praise and reinforce effort, even if
success is less than expected. There is nothing
wrong with reinforcing and recognizing success, as
long as it does not create unrealistic expectations
and result in unreasonable standards.
- If your child is worried about an upcoming event,
such as giving a speech in class, practice it often so
that confidence increases and discomfort
decreases. It is not realistic to expect that all
anxiety will be removed; rather, the goal should be
to get the anxiety to a level that is manageable.
- Teach your child simple strategies to help with
anxiety, such as organizing materials and time,
developing small scripts of what to do and say,
either externally or internally, when anxiety
increases, and learning how to relax under stressful
conditions. Practicing things such as making
speeches until a comfort level is achieved can be a
useful anxiety-reducing activity.
- Listen to and talk with your child on a regular basis
and avoid being critical. Being critical may increase
pressure to be perfect, which may be contributing to
the problem in the first place. Do not treat emotions,
questions, and statements about feeling anxious as
silly or unimportant. They may not seem important to
you but are real to your child. Take all discussion
seriously, and avoid giving too much advice and
instead be there to help and offer assistance as
requested. You may find that reasoning about the
problem does not work. At times, children may
realize that their anxiety does not make sense, but
are unable to do anything about it without help.
- Do not assume that your child is being difficult or
that the problem will go away. Seek help if the
problem persists and continues to interfere with
Untreated anxiety can lead to depression and other
problems that can persist into adulthood. However,
anxiety problems can be treated effectively, especially if
detected early. Although it is neither realistic nor
advisable to try to completely eliminate all anxiety, the
overall goal of intervention should be to return your
child to a typical level of functioning.
Bourne, E. J. (1995). The anxiety and phobia workbook
(2nd ed.). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger. ISBN: 1-
Dacey, J. S., & Fiore, B. (2001). Your anxious child: How
parents and teachers can relieve anxiety in children.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN: 0-78796-040-3.
Manassis, K. (1996). Keys to parenting your anxious
child. New York: Barrons. ISBN: 0-81209-605-3.
Anxiety Disorders Association of America—www.aada.org
National Mental Health Association—www.nmha.org
Thomas J. Huberty, PhD, NCSP, is Professor and Director
of the School Psychology Program at Indiana University,
© 2004 National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway,
Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814—(301) 657-0270.