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“My son was always clingy as a toddler. My husband and I thought it was just a phase he was going through as many of our friends’ children seemed to be the same way. Once our son entered pre-school, however, we became more concerned. He wouldn’t let me out of his sight and was excessively clingy. Things got even worse when he started elementary school. He had stomach aches, headaches and was terrified of going to school. Sometimes his tantrums were so horrible to watch that I just had to give in to him and bring him home with me from a birthday party or school. It was heartbreaking to watch our son suffering so much.”

It is not uncommon for children to have fears and insecurities or for young children to cling to their parents when in new situations or around new people. As children grow older and enter school situations, it is also quite common for them to feel nervous about exams or giving class presentations. When physical and/or emotional symptoms become difficult to manage, or a child’s ability to function in a variety of situations like school, extra curricular activities, friendships, etc. becomes compromised, then your child may be suffering from a childhood anxiety disorder.

Children can suffer from the same six anxiety disorders from which adults can suffer. In addition to these, however, they may suffer from Separation Anxiety Disorder.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation Anxiety Disorder is characterized by an excessive fear of leaving or being left by a primary caregiver - usually one’s parents. Accompanying this fear is the concern that something terrible will happen to the parents or caregiver once they are out of sight. Although it is very common for toddlers to feel fearful when being left with a new caregiver or at preschool, they usually adjust once they have been distracted and/or after some time has passed. If by the age of four, your child is still having difficulty being left at school or with others, then he or she may have separation anxiety disorder.

Symptoms can include:

  • Following a parent or parents around - not letting them out of their sight
  • Being excessively afraid of sleeping over at a friend’s home
  • Refusing to go to camp or school
  • Repeated requests to have someone with them when they fall asleep or to get into parents’ bed in the middle of the night
  • Not wanting to or avoiding going to places by themselves

Social Anxiety Disorder

Many children are considered to be shy and as they age they seem to “grow out of it”. Social anxiety disorder, however, is characterized by much more intense feelings and associated behaviours. It is an intense fear of scrutiny and evaluation by peers or authority figures (e.g., teachers), and/or of performance situations.

Children with Social Anxiety Disorder may avoid situations where they may have to engage in activities that make them feel anxious. School performance and attendance, as well as the child's ability to socialize with peers and develop relationships, can all be compromised as a result.

Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder may include:

  • Feeling intensely afraid of and/or avoiding:
  • Social performance situations
  • Initiating conversations with peers or teachers
  • Speaking in front of the class
  • Inviting others to social activities
  • Participating in peer oriented activities like sports, parties etc.

The following are some of the physical symptoms of Social anxiety disorder:

  • Dizziness
  • Stomach aches
  • Racing heart
  • Sweating
  • Crying

Obsessive- Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in children is characterized by involuntary thoughts or images that arise repeatedly in the child’s mind which can be unpleasant or frightening to the child. These are called obsessions.  Examples of obsessive thoughts in children include thoughts about getting sick or that something bad will happen to their parents. In order to keep the thoughts at bay or to lessen the anxiety experienced by the intrusive thoughts, a child will feel compelled to engage in specific rituals or behaviours which are called Compulsions. These can include: dressing in a certain way, counting, hand washing, checking things like doors and locks, repeating certain words or numbers over and over again.  

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive worry about a number of different everyday things like social activities, school performance, extra curricular activities and home life. The worry is very distressing to the child and is perceived as uncontrollable which results in a constant need for reassurance from others.

The following are some of the physical symptoms that a child may exhibit:

  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Stomach aches
  • Restlessness
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Difficulty concentrating

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Children can experience PTSD after they have experienced or witnessed a stressful or traumatic event such as the death of a loved one, a natural disaster like a hurricane, car accident, physical or sexual abuse, etc.

Some of the symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Excessive clinginess
  • Nightmares
  • Irritability
  • Avoidance of things or people associated with the traumatic event
  • Excessive fear of the event taking place again

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is diagnosed in children when a child experiences at least two panic attacks which occur suddenly or ‘out of the blue’ followed by a month of feeling fearful and apprehensive of having another episode. Children who experience panic attacks become very frightened of having other attacks and the physical symptoms they cause. This may lead them to avoid going to school or to avoid being away from their parents. Panic Disorder often appears in adolescence.

Symptoms of Panic attacks include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Racing heart
  • Choking sensation
  • Dizziness
  • Fear of dying or losing control

Specific Phobias

Children who experience phobias have excessive and/or unrealistic fears about specific situations or things. Often the child will do anything to avoid confronting the feared object or situation as it causes such intense anxiety. Often when faced with the object or situation the child will react with intense clinginess, crying, tantruming, freezing or will experience physical symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches.  

Situations or objects that can bring on these intense feelings include: the dark, storms, water, heights, animals, being in enclosed spaces, going to the doctor or dentist.

If you are concerned that your child may have an anxiety disorder, speak to your family physician, psychologist, or psychiatrist.


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