Understanding the ABC’s of Anxiety


The term anxiety is used more and more often these days, so it is increasingly important to distinguish between feelings of anxiety that most people experience and an anxiety disorder which typically requires more intervention.   

Normal anxiety can be a very natural and sometimes beneficial response of our body’s autonomic nervous system. Our bodies ready themselves for incoming threats which we may experience as sweaty palms, a racing heart, dry mouth or extreme tension.

Anxiety becomes a problem when it impairs the functioning of a child across several domains including academic, social, and familial. The child will often choose to avoid situations that may cause discomfort.  For example, standing up in front of a group of classmates and giving a presentation can make a child feel incredibly anxious.  The child may experience some of the psychological symptoms relating to anxiety and stress but may not qualify as having an anxiety disorder.  Instead, we would consider this child to have performance anxiety.  Nonetheless, all forms of anxiety can be incredibly debilitating.  It is important as parents and caregivers that we understand the different forms of anxiety and are prepared to properly help and validate them.

Outlined below are several common forms of anxiety that children and teens struggle with and some helpful resources as well.

Performance Anxiety:
According to Today’s Parent, performance anxiety, or “stage fright”, can rear its head in a variety of locations other than formal recitals or concerts, including the sports field and the classroom.  When required to perform, many children experience racing heartbeat, headaches, sweating, and most commonly stomach pain and nausea.  Anxiety becomes a real problem when the lead-up or aftermath is stressful enough to impact the child’s normal functioning, which is usually most evident at home.  To hear more about performance anxiety and effective coping mechanisms click here

Social Anxiety:
When children are excessively self-conscious, making it difficult for them to participate in class and socialize with peers.  Social anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, self-consciousness, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.  To read more about social anxiety and tips on overcoming it click here. 


Academic Anxiety:
Academic anxiety can come from many situations including test taking, issues with homework and general challenges in the classroom.  Children with weak executive function skills in combination with a perfectionist mindset often find themselves more susceptible to academic anxiety.  Academic anxiety has four components — worry, emotionalism, task-generated interference, and study skills deficits.  To read more about academic anxiety including its link with ADHD click here.

Separation Anxiety:
Some separation anxiety is developmentally appropriate, especially for children between 1-3 years old, but older children with these fears may qualify for a diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder. Children with the disorder may frequently worry about parents dying or becoming separated from them.  They may refuse to go out or go to school, have nightmares about separation, or experience physical symptoms like headaches or nausea due to this anxiety.  To learn more about separation anxiety and tips for parents on how to handle it click here