How Common Is Anxiety?
Anxiety was first acknowledged by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980 as a mental disorder. It is not that anxiety didn't exist before that, but doctors used the terms “suffering with nerves,” or neurosis, instead. Since then, anxiety has become the most widely recognized mental health problem in the general population. Estimates show 10 to 15 percent of American children are affected by, meet the criteria of, or are diagnosed with, some form of an anxiety disorder. In adults that figure rises, ranging from 16 to 18 percent.
For children ages six to 11, research shows one in 10 as having some form of anxiety disorder. Social anxiety has the highest percentage, with between 8 to 11 percent being affected, followed by generalized anxiety disorder at 3 to 4 percent, then separation anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
A coexisting condition occurs when your child has more than one disorder at the same time. An example would be a child who feels anxious and is depressed about it. Research shows that a large percentage of children and adolescents who have anxiety, 50 to 89 percent, are diagnosed with another disorder as well.
The American Journal of Psychiatry found that children who had a social anxiety disorder had an additional diagnosis:
20 percent had other specific phobias
16 percent had generalized anxiety disorder
8 percent had depression
16 percent had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
16 percent had learning disabilities
Another study evaluated a group of children who had a panic attack by the age of 14. Researchers were able to project that by the time the children in the study were 24 years old:
33 percent still had an anxiety disorder
24 percent had a mood disorder
29 percent had a substance abuse disorder
A National Institute of Mental Health survey conducted in 2007 found that half of all adults with an anxiety disorder had a psychiatric diagnosis in youth. Other literature suggests it is as high as 90 percent. If you suspect your child has an anxiety disorder, it is best to have a doctor check her symptoms.
Common Personality Traits and Characteristics
Certain traits appear to have an influence on the development of anxiety disorders in children. Common characteristics shared by those who suffer with anxiety include:
Strong sense of responsibility
Need to please others
Oversensitivity to criticism
Overachievement or low achievement
Tendency to worry
Although anxiety can lead to distress and difficulty in your child's capacity to cope, there is another side to this; those same traits can produce some excellent kids. The characteristics listed above can also create children who are well-behaved, sensitive toward others, easily connected to their feelings, motivated to do well, work toward high achievement, and are bright, mindful, and concerned about pleasing others, not just themselves. Just as with most things in life, there are always two sides to a story.
Comparing Boys and Girls
Researchers have found that girls are twice as likely as boys to suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, social phobias, specific phobias, and panic attacks at some point in their lives. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is equally common in boys and girls, and more girls than boys suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
My child complains before school that she does not feel well. How do I know if she is really sick?
For morning tummyaches, see if there are any other symptoms. If there is only one symptom, the bellyache, then do not worry. Two or more symptoms, bellyache and fever, or bellyache and vomiting, should be taken more seriously.
Although far from finding a clear-cut reason for these gender differences, medical professionals suggest that maybe girls have an imbalance in hormones, an increase in emotional, mental, physical, or sexual abuse, and a higher sensitivity to others' struggles. A connection between abuse suffered in childhood and long-term changes in the brain's structure and chemistry has been found. Researchers looking at the brains of sexually abused girls found that they had abnormal blood flow in the hippocampus, which triggers memories and emotions. These girls were found to be more moody and depressed, and suffered more anxiety attacks.
Scientists also believe sex hormones may play a role in why more girls than boys feel anxiety. Estrogen, a female hormone, is known to interact with serotonin, one of the brain chemicals implicated in both depression and anxiety disorders. Additionally, girls are more likely than boys to seek help. This may reflect the fact that it is more socially acceptable for girls to both express and address their emotional states.