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Anxiety Disorders in Children


By Wilma McLaughlin, LCPC, Agape Counseling

Anxiety and anxiety disorders in children are one of the main reasons parents seek counseling for their children. Phobias (such as school or social phobia), separation anxiety, obsessive compulsive behavior, generalized anxiety, and posttraumatic stress are all anxiety related disorders.

Anxiety is best understood in terms of being a response to stress — particularly exposure to cumulative stressors. In children, anxiety disorders can occur when the child feels overwhelmed by and unable to resolve external demands or circumstances, producing a flight or fight response.

Anxiety disorders in children may have symptoms that further their belief that they are different or inadequate, and can make them targets for bullying. Children with high anxiety often complain of:

  • Gastro-intestinal upset
  • Sleep problems
  • Vague physical (or somatic) ailments with no medical basis
  • Attention problems
  • Social isolation
  • Indecisiveness
  • Separation problems

Children who display anxiety-ridden tendencies tend to have one or all of the following:

  •  Highly developed sense of responsibility (my fault, I should fix this)
  • Perfectionism
  • High expectations
  • Oversensitivity to criticism or rejection
  • Strong control needs
  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Tendency to please
  • Difficulty with assertiveness
  • Frequent worry

Trauma is also often a contributor to childhood anxiety disorders. Trauma can include natural disaster, loss of significant relationships, medical trauma, or exposure to intense situations that are beyond a child’s intellectual comprehension — such as viewing graphic images/events or even overhearing explicit sharing of events that contain fearful elements.

Parenting style has also been cited as a contributor to anxiety in children, notably parents who share or convey their own fears and anxieties to their children; non-nuturant or punitive parenting; non-responsive or unavailable parents; and unpredictable or inconsistent day-to-day life thus fostering in the child a negative view of self, the world, and the future. 

Counseling is a good option for addressing anxiety in children, but there are many ways parents can help as well. These include:

  •  Regular exercise and active recreation
  • Attention to healthy nutrition
  • Structure — ensuring predictability and consistency day to day
  • Parents’ modeling calmness under pressure
  • Maintaining a consistent “rhythm” to life, such as meal times
  • Sleep planning, time management
  • Limit media usage/exposure
  • Parents set reasonable, attainable goals for the child
  • Decrease negativity
  • Talk therapy that uses a Cognitive Behavior Therapy approach — identifying negative messages, dispelling the “untruths,” and supporting reality based beliefs
  • Focus on activities in which the child can experience mastery — such as learning a new skill or enhancing an old one

Parents can also help their child by encouraging the child to keep a “Worry Book” to record things the child worries about, ranging from the mild or harmless to tragic. After each entry, have the child write an answer to “So what if that does happen.” This exercise allows the child to actively manage their unreasonable fears, think through behavioral solutions, making the fears manageable and resolvable, and decreasing the “freeze or flight” response to stress.

Wilma McLaughlin is a licensed clinical counselor with an advanced Certificate in Child and Adolescent Mental Health and trained in Theraplay and EMDR.  Wilma is one of a number of therapists at Agape Counseling who work with children and welcome your questions of whether counseling is a recommended option for your child.

Agape Counseling is a group of Christian counselors, social workers, psychologists, and support staff committed to a therapeutic process that ministers to the whole person.  They currently have groups for a wide variety of issues, including sex addiction, partners of addicts, DBT, women’s identity and more.  They have offices in Peoria, Morton, and Bloomington.  Their Peoria office is located at 2001 W. Willow Knolls, Suite 110.  For more information, call 309-692-4433 or visit their website at

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