OCD and Anxiety
As children in your community participate in this year’s trick-or-treat, many will shriek with excitement from the scary costumes, ghoulish décor and other Halloween horrors. The day after, the frightening excitement will melt away and children will return to their usual fall time schedules. But for thousands of children with anxiety in the United States, dealing with real fear every day of the year is reality.
Anxiety in children might not always appear in the way you’d expect. “A lot of children will describe feeling tense or parents will notice their child losing weight due to a loss of appetite,” says Cuong Tieu, MD, medical director of the residential Child Center, located on the Rogers Memorial Hospital–Oconomowoc campus. “Children may also complain about having an upset stomach, sweaty palms, racing heart, diarrhea or difficulty breathing, while teenagers tend to report feeling worried or afraid of certain events.”
But what are kids with anxiety afraid of? “Pediatric anxiety varies by child and can range from specific phobias about the dark or heights to separation from parents,” says Dr. Tieu. “Anxiety depends on our life experiences and how we perceive threatening or provoking events in our lives, as well as our genetic makeup.”
Pediatric anxiety rises above the occasional bad dream or worry about a monster in the closet. “All children experience anxiety at some level, but it’s how they manage it that’s important,” says Dr. Tieu. “We’re concerned about the type of anxiety that causes a child to shut down or fall short of their academic, social and family potential.” The sooner a child or teen begins treatment for anxiety and learns healthy ways to express emotions, the more likely they will be able to successfully manage the anxiety into adulthood.
“The demoralizing, negative experiences a child has as a result of their anxiety simply fuel and reinforce avoidance behaviors, causing anxiety to worsen over time because it’s not being addressed,” says Dr. Tieu. “With the help of the treatment team and evidence-based exposure therapy, children can create positive experiences by learning to control their anxiety with coping skills.”
Sometimes, parents believe their child will simply grow out of their anxiety. “Oftentimes, a parent has had their own anxiety since childhood, which is why they may minimize their own child’s symptoms or believe they can learn to manage it on their own,” says Dr. Tieu. “It’s a huge moment in therapy when a parent realizes how differently their adult life may have been if they had access to the treatment their child is receiving.”
As a parent, what should you do if you believe your child may have an anxiety disorder? Dr. Tieu recommends collecting observations on your child from multiple sources and in many different settings. “Parents have experience with their child in one primary setting: the home,” he says. “So it’s good to explore other settings. Talk with your child’s teachers, other parents and family members who are involved in your child’s life.” If anxiety-related behaviors are present across these different settings, Dr. Tieu recommends reaching out for professional treatment.