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How To Determine If Your Child Has An Anxiety Disorder

As a parent, protecting your child and looking out for their well-being is easily your biggest responsibility. But when they start behaving differently for no apparent reason, you may feel powerless when you don’t know what the cause is.

You might suspect it’s an anxiety disorder if your child is acting scared, tense, or just not like their usual selves. If this is what you’re thinking, there’s a good chance you’re right. 

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), the most common type of mental illness, affects around 17% of children. Symptoms can vary between those who suffer from this condition. This means that diagnosing a child without the assistance of an expert is not recommended.

If you think your child may have a mental illness, doctors can normally use assessments to determine this. However, you can use the following techniques to look for clues that might hint at an ongoing anxiety problem.

Recognizing The Symptoms

The first clues that a child may have anxiety are any noticeable symptoms that might seem out of the ordinary. Suspicious symptoms may include constant fidgeting, irritability, speaking at a low volume or not at all, excessive crying, slow responses to questions, and hesitancy to be away from a parent most of the time.

While these are just some of the most common symptoms seen in adolescent anxiety, they certainly aren’t the only ones. A wide range of signs and symptoms can be found in children who are overly anxious.

However, it’s important to note that many of these symptoms can be normal in some cases. During certain development stages, some changes in behavior are to be expected. For example, during the first year of a child’s life, many will exhibit signs of having stranger anxiety. This is where they may cry or become scared when encountering a stranger or somebody that isn’t their parent.

When this happens in teenagers or children who are beyond infant age, it can often be classified as either social or separation anxiety. When it happens in very young infants, it may be a normal part of the development process and not necessarily a sign of a disorder.

Also, it’s quite common for parents to misinterpret anxiety symptoms as being rebellious or disobedient traits. If a child is being fussy about doing something or is crying when confronted with something, parents sometimes assume that the child is being uncooperative.

In many cases, behaviors like this can be signs of anxiety. The child might be acting this way because they are having anxiety or experiencing extreme fear over something.

Linking Causes to Behavior

Sometimes, simply knowing about the causes of anxiety can be helpful in trying to determine if a young one is experiencing it. For instance, studies linking traumatic experiences and abuse to mental illnesses have been well documented over the years. If a parent is aware of this and knows about a specific traumatic incident that happened to a child, there’s often a good chance that the child suffers from an anxiety disorder.

A link between anxiety disorders and genetic traits has also been discovered in various studies in recent years. One part of the brain, the amygdala, has been found to play a major role in the way both children and adults process fear.

In one study, parents who experienced anxiety were more likely to have children who also experienced that. It was suggested that this was because of genetic differences in some families that cause differences in the size of the amygdala.

In other words, parents with certain genes that contribute to anxiety may pass these genes down to their children. If one parent has anxiety, this can increase the odds that their child has it too. When both parents have anxiety, this can increase those odds even more. Parents must sometimes connect the dots between what they already know and the symptoms they see.

Anxiety Assessments

For parents who are wondering if their child is dealing with a mental disorder, there’s a wide array of different assessments available. The following are some of the more common ones that doctors are using today.

  • Spence Children’s Anxiety Scale (SCAS) – The SCAS is a child anxiety assessment for children younger than 16 years old. There is a parent version in which caregivers answer questions based on symptoms they’ve observed in their children. There are also two versions for children as well, depending on their age. One major benefit of this assessment is that it can help doctors and parents in determining what specific type of anxiety disorder their child might have.

  • Anxiety and Related Emotional Disorders (SCARED) – Similar to the SCAS, the SCARED questionnaire can be filled out by either a parent or the child. It normally takes less than 15 minutes to complete. Afterward, a therapist will score the assessment to determine what disorders a child might have. One advantage that it has over many other youth assessments is the fact that it can be administered to older children up to 18 years old.

  • Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule–Child/Parent (ADIS) – While the ADIS can take more time than other evaluations, it’s considered by some experts to be the best child anxiety assessment. It’s an interview schedule that a doctor will normally conduct with a parent and their child separately. It’s particularly useful because it not only allows doctors to determine the type of anxiety disorder, but it’s also able to screen for other mental illnesses a child may have at the same time.

  • Pediatric Anxiety Rating Scale (PARS) – PARS is an assessment that is sometimes given multiple times over the course of weeks, months, or even years. Even if a child has already been diagnosed with excessive anxiety, PARS is still often used as a follow-up. Doctors use this assessment to determine just how severe a disorder is and how it might be improving or getting worse over time. This assessment normally involves both a parent and their child’s cooperation and rates the child’s symptoms over the past 7 days each time it’s given.

  • Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale (RCADS) – This is a commonly-used rating tool that is sometimes combined with other assessments. There are two versions: one where parents answer questions and the other where children do. It’s useful because it can diagnose both anxiety and depression disorders. It can also help to determine how many different types of anxiety or depression the child is experiencing.

  • Achenbach System of Empirically Based Assessment (ASEBA) - This assessment involves input from both parents and teachers as well as a self-report form for children of older ages to fill out. The input from all three sources can then be compared by a doctor to look for consistencies and things that stand out.

Speak To An Expert

While parents can use symptoms and causes as possible clues of an ongoing anxiety problem, you should still bring your child to an expert for a full evaluation. Being overly anxious all the time can cause many physical health problems. This is especially true when a disorder is left untreated.

All the assessments covered here are normally combined with other methods to reach a diagnosis. However, rest assured that qualified experts are normally very good at resolving anxiety disorders in children after a diagnosis.

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