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Children's and parenting health centre

Childhood anxiety

When do kids' worries become an anxiety disorder?
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

It's perfectly normal for children to have worries and fears. Whether it's being afraid of the dark, dreading a big maths test or having a fall out with a friend; kids, just like adults, get anxious about things.

Sometimes your child's anxiety can be more than just passing concerns. It can develop into a disorder which stops them from enjoying life as they should.

"Parents are good at spotting the signs of anxiety" says clinical child psychologist Dr Sam Cartwright-Hatton.

"There's a problem when it's more intense anxiety than they see in other kids, when it's interfering with a child's life, stopping them from going to school or making friends."

Anxiety may have got out of hand if it's affecting your child a lot of the time, for weeks at a time. They may be having trouble sleeping at night and are more easily irritable and upset than usual.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists estimates that 300,000 children and young people in Britain have an anxiety disorder.

There are a number of different anxiety disorders which affect children.

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

Generalised anxiety disorder is characterised by excessive worry over any number of things. It may be school, exams, being on time, family issues or world events.

Kids with GAD may find they can't control their worries and they can lead to physical symptoms like sleep problems, irritability and difficulty in concentrating.

Fourteen year old Charlotte had a problem with worrying last year.

"When I couldn't get to sleep, I worried that I'd be tired at school the next day which made me stressed and I still couldn't sleep. It got to the stage when I dreaded going to bed as I knew I'd be lying their worrying for hours and hours about not having enough sleep."

Charlotte experienced sleep problems caused by worry for about 6 months but now the phase has passed and she sleeps well.

Quite often GAD is school related.

"If a child doesn't want to go to school, anxiety can turn into physical symptoms like sickness and stomach cramps," says Daphne Joseph, manager of the parents' helpline at the charity YoungMinds.

"If it's happening every day it's a cause for concern. If there's actually nothing physically wrong, you need to find out what's going on and speak to a teacher," she says.

Mum Rachel realised her daughter had a severe anxiety problem when she was in year 8 at senior school. "She was getting so anxious about going in to certain lessons as she was having anxiety attacks - feeling sick, overwhelmed and basically walking out of lessons and hiding in the toilets for a while or going to the sick bay."

She and her husband felt completely helpless, upset, angry and worried.

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