If your child or adolescent is experiencing acute fear or excessive worry, eating or sleeping disturbances, difficulty concentrating, or physical uneasiness for extended periods, he or she may suffer from an anxiety disorder. The anxiety disorders include: generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Your child is at an increased risk for an anxiety disorder if he or she has a shy or restrained temperament, or has experienced significant abuse, neglect, trauma, or family conflict. If untreated, anxiety disorders can negatively impact family and social relationships as well as academic performance. Adolescents with anxiety disorders are at greater risk for drug and alcohol abuse.
Fortunately, mental health treatment can be very effective at treating anxiety disorders in children and adolescents. Treatment should begin with a visit to the pediatrician to rule out any physical cause, such as asthma, epilepsy, or a medication, which may be contributing to the anxious symptoms. A mental health professional can then screen for anxiety via interviews with the parents and child as well as the use of diagnostic rating scales, and may identify other mental health conditions that either contribute to or are co-morbid with the anxiety.
While clinicians may treat childhood anxiety in a variety of ways depending on the type of anxiety as well as other presenting issues, most effective treatment usually includes:
- Family involvement in the treatment, both via parental consultation and family participation in at least some of the sessions
- The use of play, especially for children under 12
- Relaxation exercises and/or biofeedback techniques to help children control stress and muscle tension
- Cognitive and behavioral techniques to assist children in modifying the way they respond to and think about their fears
- Concrete suggestions for activities that parents and kids can participate in outside of the sessions
- A willingness to refer to someone who can prescribe psychotropic medication if the anxiety is severe or if it persists despite several months of therapy
Effectively applied, mental health treatment for an anxious child or teen typically results in decreased stress, improved functioning at home and school, and greater relaxation and enjoyment for the whole family.