What is Anxiety for Kids? Explaining Stress and Fear

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions in the United States, and it’s increasing among children. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 25% of children between the ages of 13 and 18 will experience an anxiety disorder, and the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 9.1% of children between the ages of 6 and 17 have a diagnosed anxiety disorder. In this article, we will explain what anxiety is for kids and explore the topics of stress and fear.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry, or unease. It’s a normal response to stress and can be beneficial in certain situations. For example, feeling anxious before a big test can help you stay alert and focused. However, anxiety can become excessive and interfere with daily life. When anxiety lasts for a long time and is disproportionate to the situation, it can be a sign of an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are diagnosed when someone experiences excessive and persistent anxiety that interferes with daily activities. There are several types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Specific phobias
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Each type of anxiety disorder presents with different symptoms and requires different treatments. It’s important to seek professional help if you think you or someone you know may have an anxiety disorder.

What are the Symptoms of Anxiety?

Anxiety presents differently in each person, but it often includes physical and emotional symptoms. Physical symptoms can include:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomach upset
  • Muscle tension or aches

Emotionally, someone experiencing anxiety may feel:

  • Fear or panic
  • Excessive worry
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness

Children may also experience anxiety-related behaviors, such as refusing to go to school or avoiding social activities.

What Causes Anxiety?

Anxiety can be caused by a combination of factors, including genetic, environmental, and developmental factors. Some possible causes of anxiety include:

  • Family history of anxiety/mental health disorders
  • Stressful life events, such as a divorce or death of a loved one
  • Trauma or abuse
  • Distressing childhood experiences, such as bullying or parenting difficulties
  • Brain chemistry imbalances
  • Chronic medical conditions

While it’s not entirely clear why someone develops an anxiety disorder, it’s essential to remember that it’s not the person’s fault. Anxiety disorders are real medical conditions, and they are treatable.

Explaining Stress

Stress is a feeling of emotional or mental tension that can arise from challenging situations. It’s a normal response to small challenges, but too much stress can be harmful to mental and physical health. People often use the word “stress” to describe other emotions like frustration, anger, or anxiety, which can make it challenging to understand the differences between them.

Stress vs. Anxiety

While stress and anxiety are related, they are not the same thing. Stress is often a short-term reaction to a situation, whereas anxiety can be a prolonged response to stress. Stress is typically related to a specific circumstance, while anxiety can persist even when a stressor is not present.

Stress can motivate someone to take action and solve a problem. In contrast, anxiety can immobilize someone and make it challenging to take action. Anxiety also tends to be associated with more significant negative consequences than stress, such as social isolation, health problems, and decreased life satisfaction.

The Effects of Stress on Kids

Stress can affect children differently than it does adults. Children are still developing their coping mechanisms and emotional regulation skills, so stress can impact them more significantly. Stress can occur in many different circumstances, such as:

  • Academic pressure
  • Conflict with peers
  • Family problems, such as divorce or illness
  • Environmental changes, such as moving to a new city

Excessive stress can lead to physical symptoms in children, such as stomach aches and headaches. Children may also show emotional symptoms such as decreased interest in previously enjoyable activities, difficulty concentrating, and irritability. It’s essential to monitor children for signs of excessive stress and teach them healthy coping mechanisms from a young age.

Explaining Fear

Fear is a powerful emotion that is a normal response to a dangerous or threatening situation. Fear is essential because it helps people stay safe by evoking a response to a potentially dangerous situation. For example, if someone sees a snake, they may feel afraid and quickly leave the area.

However, sometimes fear can get out of control and cause issues. Phobias are an example of excessive fear, where someone is afraid of a specific object or situation, even if there is no real threat. Common phobias in children include fearing the dark, animals, and thunderstorms.

How to Help Kids Cope with Fear

It’s important to help children understand that fear is a normal and healthy emotion. Children can learn to cope with their fears, and healthy coping mechanisms can help them manage their feelings better. Some strategies to help children cope with fear include:

  • Talking to a trusted adult about their fears
  • Practicing relaxation or mindfulness techniques
  • Gradual exposure to feared situations, such as slowly spending time in the dark or getting comfortable around animals
  • Taking slow, deep breaths to calm themselves down when feeling afraid
  • Building self-confidence by setting achievable goals and encouraging accomplishments


Anxiety is a common mental health condition that affects many children. Stress and fear are related emotions that can contribute to anxiety, but they are not the same thing. It’s essential to monitor children for signs of excessive stress and teach healthy coping mechanisms from a young age.

Most Common Questions about Anxiety in Kids

  • What causes anxiety in kids? Anxiety can be caused by genetic, environmental, and developmental factors such as family history of mental health disorders, traumatic events, or brain chemistry imbalances.
  • What are the symptoms of anxiety in kids? Symptoms of anxiety in kids can include rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling or shaking, excessive worry, difficulty concentrating, and restlessness.
  • What are the types of anxiety disorders? The types of anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Can anxiety in kids be treated? Yes, anxiety in kids can be treated with various therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, medications, or a combination of both.


  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2020). Anxiety in Children. https://adaa.org/finding-help/child-anxiety-disorders.
  • National Institute of Mental Health. (2018). Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml.
  • HelpGuide.org. (2020). Anxiety in Children. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/anxiety-in-children.htm.

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