Anxiety in Kids and Youth

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of fear, nervousness or unease in your body that occurs when there is a perceived or actual threat in the individual’s environment. Anxiety can be completely normal!

It can act as an “alarm system” in your body when there is a stressful situation. Every child and youth will experience anxiety in their body at some point as we know that stressful situations are a normal part of living. Several common worries that children may have include changes in routine, going to new activities, starting at a new school, and meeting new people.

Symptoms of anxiety can manifest in many ways. For example, did you know that anxiety can manifest in your child or youth as physical symptoms? Anxiety activates a part of your autonomic nervous system which causes a fight-or-flight response. When this system kicks into action, physical symptoms of anxiety may appear such as racing heart, sweating, stomach aches, headaches, and nausea.

In younger children, anxiety can manifest as certain behaviours. For example, crying excessively, tantrums, head banging, and avoidance are all behaviours that can occur due to underlying anxiety.

What are anxiety disorders?

An anxiety disorder is when the anxiety in the body becomes so overwhelming and persistent that it affects daily life for your child. An anxiety disorder can have a significant impact on sleep, nutrition, activities, grades at school, relationships with friends and family, and has long-term health consequences if not properly treated. There are different types of anxiety disorders that can impact children and youth including but not limited to, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (or OCD). 

What causes an anxiety disorder?

The exact cause of an anxiety disorder is not known however, there are a number of factors that can contribute to its development including your genes (anxiety disorders often run in families), temperamental factors (eg more common in children who are sensitive to things in the environment starting at a young age) and certain social or environmental factors (eg moving provinces, bullying at school, illnesses in the family etc). Often, there are multiple risk factors present in individuals who are diagnosed with anxiety disorders.

How can I help my child with an anxiety disorder?

Helping your child with an anxiety disorder can be challenging however, the good news is that anxiety is very treatable!  There are things that can be done at home to help your child with anxiety (see list below). In addition, therapy (particularly cognitive behavioural therapy) and medications can be used to treat anxiety if required.

What can I do at home to help my child or youth with anxiety?

  • Listen to and validate your child’s feelings at home.
  • Explain that anxiety is normal and can help us stay safe.
  • Work with your child to make a plan of how to handle anxiety-provoking situations and provide reminders and encouragement of this plan; review and revise plan as needed.
  • Promote an environment that fosters good sleep hygiene.
  • Practice mindfulness strategies at home with your child (eg, deep breathing)
  • Model confidence that everything is going to be ok when your child is worried.
  • Although it is very hard, ensure your child maintains attendance at school or other anxiety-provoking activities (as avoidance can reinforce their anxiety).

What is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)?

CBT is an evidence-based therapy that can be used to treat mild to moderate anxiety in children and youth. It helps individuals with anxiety to understand their thoughts, feelings and behaviours about a challenging situation and teaches them how to respond to these situations more effectively. CBT helps to change thought patterns, making them clearer and more realistic. It allows children and youth to develop tools they need to effectively navigate challenging situations in the future.

What medications are used to treat anxiety?

In more severe cases of anxiety, it can be very challenging for individuals to engage in therapy effectively. Medications can be helpful in these situations. They can be effective in treating physiological manifestations of anxiety (the physical symptoms we discussed earlier in this blog!). The medications commonly prescribed are selective serotonin reupdate inhibitors (or SSRIs). Talk to your doctor if you want to learn more about these medications and whether they are right for your child.

Please check out Proactive Pediatrics Website for more information on our psychologists/counsellors who provide therapy to patients with anxiety.

Check out Dr. Burke’s anxiety clinic.

Anxiety Resources:

  1. Kelty Mental Health-general anxiety resources
  2. Anxiety/depression medications:
  3. Anxiety Canada:
  4. Anxiety Canada-My Anxiety Plan (MAP)
  5. Anxiety Canada-Mindshift App
  6. The Mindful Teen
    Author-Dr. Dzung Vo (Adolescent Medicine Specialist)