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Author: Dr Sabina DosaniConsultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist

It’s often not clear as to why some children or teenagers develop anxiety disorders, however there are some commonly agreed causes.

Family history

If either biological parent has an anxiety disorder, either now or in the past, your child will be more likely to develop one as well. The age parental anxiety first started also has an impact on the likelihood of your child developing anxiety – the earlier you developed anxiety, the more likely your child will be to develop an anxiety disorder1.

Part of this may be due to genetic causes but it may also be due in part to upbringing. Children will often learn anxiety, fear or avoidance from anxious parents.

1Wittchen, HU.; et al (2000)

1 in 5 children are affected by anxiety in the UK


Brain biology

The structure of your child’s brain and how the chemical reactions function in each individual are also thought to play a role in whether or not a child will develop an anxiety disorder.

Of particular interest is the part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for our flight or fight response and studies have shown that children with an anxiety disorder often have hypersensitivity in this area2.

2McClure, E.B. et al.; (2007)

amygdala


Personality type

There are numerous theories that different personality types are more likely to suffer with anxiety than others, for instance those children who are emotionally sensitive or shy are more at risk 3.

However, some theorists would argue that emotionally sensitive children often learn a resilience about the world, that then protects them from developing conditions such as depression or anxiety later on in life, so there are no set rules.

3Biederman, J. et al., (2001)

 

Thank you for all the help that you have given our family, our son is doing really well at school and things are much more settled at home.

Martha, Liverpool


Childhood experiences

Many studies have shown, perhaps unsurprisingly, that children who face adversity or difficult experiences in their childhood are more likely to go on to develop a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression4 as adults.

Experiences such as acrimonious divorces, childhood abuse, trauma and death of a parent can deeply impact a child and leave them with difficult emotions that may impact on the rest of their lives. Seeking help and support early has been shown to be helpful in allowing children to work through difficult emotions and prevent the onset of further complications.

4Beesdo, K., et al (2009)

As parents, we often blame ourselves, and when parents feel anxious, this can feel even worse. Anxiety isn’t anyone’s fault, and my job as a psychiatrist is to understand the story of what might have made a child more vulnerable to developing an anxiety disorder, including looking at possible genetic causes. This helps me plan treatment, understand triggers and identify strengths the child can utilise in the future.
MBBS, MSc, MRCPsych

Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist
London

Dr Sabina Dosani is a highly experienced Consultant Psychiatrist currently working for the Anna Freud Centre looking after Children and Adolescents. She has a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery as well as being a member of the Royal College...

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