Many childhood anxiety disorders surface around age 5. This is a time of major transition for most children. As they enter kindergarten, they must learn to cope with new social situations and academic pressure. Some degree of anxiety is normal in young children, but prolonged or intense anxiety can indicate an underlying problem.
One possible cause of anxiety in a 5-year-old is a fear of attending school, called school refusal 1. Children with school refusal anxiety often complain of physical illness, especially headaches and stomach aches, in an attempt to skip school as often as possible 1. In fact, their anxiety can cause real physical symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting, which usually disappear when the child is allowed to stay home.
A new preschool or kindergarten setting can be intimidating to a 5-year-old. Fear of failure or social discomfort can cause school refusal anxiety 1. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, if your child has school refusal anxiety, you should have him evaluated by a mental health professional and maintain regular school attendance 12.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, is characterized by obsessive worry over things like grades, sports performance or family issues 2. Children with GAD experience an intense and unreasonable level of anxiety that affects their physical health or daily routines. They are typically perfectionists and have unrealistic expectations of themselves. A mental health professional diagnoses GAD only if the anxiety symptoms have persisted for six months or more.
Risks and Statistics
According to the National Mental Health Information Center, about 13 percent of children ages 9 to 17 experience an anxiety disorder, with the onset of symptoms typically showing up around ages 6 to 8 years. According to the Center, children “are more likely to have an anxiety disorder if they have a parent with anxiety disorders.”
Although scientists have not yet determined whether anxiety is genetic, sensitivity and low stress tolerance might be genetic traits that contribute to anxiety development, according to the WorryWise Kids organization. It is likely that modeling accounts for much of the high percentage of anxiety disorders among children of anxious parents. Children learn how to react to situations by watching how role models, particularly parents, handle stressors.
In addition to school-related issues, common environmental causes of worry include divorce, death of a loved one, moving or some type of trauma. Though a short-term, stressed response is normal in most children, these events can trigger anxiety disorders in some children.
Only a mental health professional can accurately diagnose the presence of an anxiety disorder. Once the underlying cause of anxiety is discovered, the professional and the child’s parents can discuss the best treatment options. Common types of treatment for anxiety in young children include cognitive-behavioral treatment, relaxation techniques, family therapy, parent training, medication or a combination of treatment types.
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