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What gives kids anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are on the rise among children and adolescents. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders affect 25.1% of children between 13 and 18 years old. With numbers this high, it’s important for parents to understand the causes of anxiety in kids.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural response to stress that involves feelings of worry, unease, and fear. Mild anxiety can be a normal and even positive experience that pushes kids to study for a test or practice harder for a sports match. However, for some children, anxiety becomes excessive, persistent, and overwhelming. This is when anxiety crosses the line into a disorder that requires professional treatment.

There are several types of anxiety disorders that can affect kids:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder: Excessive worry about many areas of life
  • Social anxiety disorder: Extreme fear around social situations and interactions
  • Separation anxiety disorder: Intense fear about being away from parents/caregivers
  • Phobias: Persistent, irrational fear of a specific object or situation
  • Panic disorder: Recurring panic attacks that strike without warning
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder: Intrusive, irrational thoughts (obsessions) and rituals (compulsions) aimed at reducing anxiety

Kids with anxiety disorders experience frequent intense episodes of fear, worry, avoidance, and panic that interfere with daily life. Their anxiety is disproportionate to the situation and persists even when there is no real threat or danger present.

Common causes of anxiety in kids

There is no single cause of anxiety disorders in children. Multiple biological and environmental risk factors can contribute to the development of anxiety. Here are some of the most common potential causes:

Genetics and biology

Anxiety disorders tend to run in families. Kids with parents or siblings who have anxiety are more likely to develop problems with anxiety themselves. Research shows anxiety is linked to genes that regulate neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine in the brain.


Anxious temperament at an early age can be an early sign. Kids who are extremely shy, negative, withdrawn, and risk-averse may be prone to anxiety disorders later in life.

Environmental stress

Stressful or traumatic life events are linked to pediatric anxiety. Things like school bullying, abuse, loss of a loved one, divorce, family conflict, and chronic illness can trigger the onset of anxiety in children.

Poor coping skills

Kids with underdeveloped coping and emotional regulation skills are more likely to become overwhelmed by anxiety. Those who have trouble handling uncertainty, expressing emotions, and solving problems healthily are at increased risk.

Overprotective parenting

Parenting that is extremely protective and prevents kids from developing independence can inhibit their ability to cope with life stressors. Helicopter parenting and limiting exposure to difficult situations may backfire.

High-pressure environments

Expectations to excel at school, sports, or activities can drive anxiety in kids. Competition, perfectionism, and pressure to avoid failure can be triggering. This is especially true for kids with existing anxiety issues.

Physical health problems

Certain physical health issues like chronic pain conditions, thyroid disorders, and headaches/migraines are associated with higher anxiety levels in children.

Social media and technology

While research is still ongoing, some studies link excessive social media and technology use to anxiety and depression in teens. Cyberbullying can also contribute to anxiety in affected kids.

Signs of anxiety in children

Anxiety can manifest differently in kids depending on their age. Here are some common signs of anxiety by age group:


  • Clinging, following caregivers closely
  • Frequent stomachaches and headaches
  • Trouble sleeping, nightmares
  • Avoiding new situations, things, or people

Elementary schoolers

  • Perfectionism, fear of failure
  • Seeking constant reassurance from teachers, parents
  • Refusing to go to school or overnight activities
  • Trouble concentrating due to worries


  • Withdrawing from friends and activities
  • Physical symptoms like dizziness, chest pain, GI issues
  • Substance abuse
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Self-harm behaviors

Regardless of age, signs that anxiety may be present include difficulty sleeping, headaches/stomachaches with no clear cause, avoiding feared situations, clingy behavior, panic attacks, and angry outbursts.

Risk factors for anxiety in kids

Certain children are at increased risk of developing problems with anxiety. Risk factors include:

  • Family history of anxiety
  • Trauma or adverse childhood experiences
  • Chronic physical illness
  • Developmental disorders like autism
  • Being female (anxiety is more common in girls)
  • Having a shy, inhibited temperament
  • Living in poverty/low socioeconomic status

Kids exposed to these risk factors may benefit from screening or early intervention efforts to prevent full-blown anxiety disorders.

Impact of untreated pediatric anxiety

Allowing anxiety to go untreated in childhood can lead to significant problems down the road. Impacts include:

  • Poor academic performance
  • Strained social relationships
  • Substance abuse
  • Development of additional mental health issues like depression
  • Suicidal behaviors
  • Lasting effects on brain development and function

Getting help for anxiety early in life is essential to prevent complications and allow kids to reach their full potential.

When to get professional help

It’s normal for anxiety to crop up occasionally in childhood. However, if anxiety is severe, persistent, and interfering with school, activities, or relationships, it’s time to consider seeking professional support. Signs it may be time to get help include:

  • Panic attacks
  • Trouble breathing
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Withdrawn behavior
  • School refusal
  • Physical symptoms with no clear cause
  • Anxiety that lasts 6+ months

Don’t hesitate to reach out to a pediatrician, therapist, or mental health specialist if your child’s anxiety feels out of control. The earlier treatment starts, the better the outcome will likely be.

Treatments for anxiety disorders in kids

To treat anxious children, professionals often use a multifaceted approach that involves therapy, education, parenting support, and sometimes medication. Common treatments include:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT helps kids change negative thought patterns and develop better coping strategies. It may be done individually or in a group setting.

Exposure therapy

Gradual, guided exposure to feared objects/situations in a safe environment can help kids overcome anxiety triggers.

Relaxation techniques

Deep breathing, guided imagery, mindfulness, and progressive muscle relaxation can calm the body and mind.


SSRIs and other anti-anxiety meds may help relieve severe symptoms, especially when combined with therapy.

Parent training

Education programs teach parents skills to support anxious kids including modeling emotional regulation and setting age-appropriate limits on accommodation.

Treatment Description Benefits
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Targets unhelpful thoughts and behaviors Builds coping skills, evidence-based
Exposure Therapy Controlled exposure to fears Decreases avoidance and sensory sensitivity
Relaxation Techniques Controlled breathing, mindfulness, etc. Reduces physical anxiety symptoms
Medications SSRIs, SNRIs, benzodiazepines Alleviate severe symptoms quickly
Parent Training Strategies to help anxious children Improves parenting self-efficacy

Helping an anxious child at home

In addition to professional treatment, parents can provide support at home. Strategies include:

  • Remaining calm and validating child’s feelings
  • Modeling effective coping techniques
  • Practicing relaxation skills together at home
  • Slowly encouraging independence
  • Keeping routines consistent
  • Avoiding excessive accommodation
  • Working collaboratively with treatment providers

While living with an anxious child is challenging, professional treatment combined with family support can help set them up for success.

Preventing anxiety in kids

Research into preventing pediatric anxiety is still emerging, but some strategies parents can try include:

  • Cultivating secure attachment from infancy
  • Modeling healthy emotion regulation
  • Practicing age-appropriate discipline
  • Teaching problem-solving and conflict resolution skills
  • Promoting physical exercise and healthy diet
  • Limiting screen time
  • Fostering talents, confidence, and resilience
  • Getting preventive mental health counseling if at high risk

While genetics play a role, focusing on protective factors may help reduce anxiety later on.


In summary, anxiety disorders are increasingly common in childhood. Potential causes are complex and include biology, environment, trauma, family dynamics, and more. Red flags include panic attacks, school avoidance, withdrawn behavior, and physical complaints. If anxiety is significantly impacting a child’s functioning, seeking professional help is key. With evidence-based treatment and family support, children can overcome anxiety and thrive.