Anxiety is a healthy human emotion that helps us detect danger and protect ourselves. Yet, for the children who have an anxiety disorder, anxiety is triggered by routine activities, is disproportional and over time inhibits the child from reaching their fullest potential. John Walkup, MD, Head of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, is an expert in pediatric anxiety. He is interested in promoting healthy conversations about how anxiety affects children’s mental health, and how families can support them.
Walkup breaks down the three stages of anxiety:
- Separation anxiety. A child who worries excessively something bad happening to them or to their caretakers may have separation anxiety. It starts roughly between 6-10 years of age. These children worry when they separate from their parents for various reasons like school or bedtime. Some even worry when they are in a different room from their caretakers and follow them around the house. These kids often don’t do sleepovers and may make regular trips to the school nurse.
- Generalized anxiety, or “worry warts.” Children who worry about the past and future, and life and death, seek extra reassurance, and can be hard on themselves could have a generalized anxiety disorder. They worry about their performance at school, and sometime shut down and do poorly when tested,” Walkup says. Generalized anxiety often presents in October, November, or test-taking time.
- Social anxiety. These are kids who are behaviorally and socially inhibited and very self-conscious sometimes going back to early childhood. These children and teens worry that they will embarrass themselves. While ‘shyness’ in children is commonly accepted, the same behavior in teens strains peer-to-peer relationships, limits new experiences and affects self-esteem.
Walkup also is Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.