Anxiety Can Happen at Any Age: Child and Teen Anxiety
Anxiety can happen at any age. Anxiety itself is part of the human condition, present in our lives merely because we exist. Sometimes, anxiety grows and expands and begins to take over our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; when this happens, we may qualify for a diagnosis of one or more anxiety disorders. Both existential anxiety and anxiety disorders such as separation anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and fears or phobias, can happen at any age. Let’s take a look at the anxiety that can happen at various ages.
Child Anxiety Occurs at Any Age from Birth to 12
Psychologists and specialists in human development group us all into general categories, called stages, of development. A variety of developmental theories exists. Together, they provide rich insight into how people grow and develop from birth through death. Fundamental among these theories are Erik Erikson’s stages of human growth and development.1 Erikson’s framework forms the foundation of this look at how anxiety can happen at any age.
The Earliest Years: Birth to Age Three
(Note: Erikson divided these years into two separate stages.)
Other than survival, our earliest tasks in this world are to first form trust in others, and then the beginnings of autonomy. Toddlers explore the world they’re learning about and return to the adults they can trust to provide their needs.
When a very young child doesn’t form a trusting relationship with a loving, reliable adult, he or she learns that the world is unsafe. Sometimes, they do have a trusting relationship but are harshly discouraged from exploring and developing a sense of autonomy. In either case, anxiety can develop, which leads to unhealthy attachment patterns such as reactive attachment disorder (RAD).
These patterns can create behavior, such as withdrawal, avoidance, or, alternately, extreme attention-seeking actions that further exacerbate anxiety. When children under the age of three experience mistrust, shame, and doubt, a tragic result can be the development of anxiety.
Early Childhood: Ages Three to Five
When babies and toddlers grow into preschoolers, a whole new world opens up to them. Their play becomes more sophisticated and they begin to role-play. They begin to develop initiative as they experiment with new tasks, both structured and unstructured. As part of being human, sometimes these young children experience success and sometimes they experience failure.
If they are punished for failures and are made to feel guilty for doing wrong, they can develop anxiety. They can become fearful, afraid to try new things and risk failure and punishment. Anxiety can squash their sense of initiative as well as interfere with social development.
Middle Childhood: Ages Five to 12
Once in elementary school, children spend less time with their families and more hours in the structured school environment (School Anxiety and Stress). As they learn to behave in a group, conform to norms, and complete increasingly complex tasks, they have the potential to develop a strong sense of competence and industry, the desire and ability to take on and complete tasks.
If school-age children don’t experience success with learning, peers, or adults, they risk developing a sense of inferiority, and with it, anxiety about performing and about social relationships, and more (Anxiety and Children: Symptoms, Causes of Childhood Anxiety).
Teen Anxiety May Begin at Any Age Between 13 - 19
Adolescence: Ages 13 to 19
Teens are relationship and friendship oriented. They’re also, more than ever, moving toward independence. They’re developing their own sense of self and exploring a balance between conforming to social standards and developing a unique identity. On one hand, they fantasize about the possibilities for their future, but on the other, they often face peer pressure, challenges, and other hardships that interfere in their ideals. Because they’re pulling away from the adults in their lives, it can be hard for them to reach out when they need help (Help Kids, Teens Manage School Anxiety with These Strategies).
Because of their developmental stage, anxiety is common in teenagers. Even when they experience success, there can be a great deal that causes fear and worry and when they aren’t successful at their developmental tasks, anxiety can skyrocket.
Anxiety Is Real at All Ages
It can be tempting to think of anxiety as something for adults and perhaps for teens. It can be surprising to learn that even the youngest among us can experience anxiety. However, when we think about the important tasks that people face from birth forward, it becomes easy to understand why anxiety can happen at any age.
The stages of human development can play a role in the degree to which we experience anxiety. Babies and toddlers through teens can develop anxiety when they don’t successfully complete the tasks for their stage. The same principle applies to adults, too. The next article will continue to explore how anxiety can happen at any age, and the focus will be on the stages of adulthood.
Resource: 1 Broderick, P.C. & Blewitt, P. (2006). The life span: Human development for helping professionals, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson, Merrill Prentice Hall.
Peterson, T. (2016, December 8). Anxiety Can Happen at Any Age: Child and Teen Anxiety, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, April 7 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2016/12/anxiety-can-happen-at-any-age-child-and-teen-anxiety
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
I think long term anxiety going unnoticed can become chronic. From experience, I think my anxieties started in my late teens and continued into my late 40s where I now suffer from GAD in my 50s. Anxiousness, negativity, and bad irrational decisions seem to be a daily cycle. But at least I know what I have now. Back then I didn't.