Anxiety is one of the most common emotions that children experience:
- Even before they turn one, babies begin to cry when an unfamiliar face approaches. This is referred to as stranger anxiety, and it begins at about 8/9 months and usually abates between ages two and three.
- Many children are anxious when they start or change schools, behavior that is common even in teens
- Night terrors are not unusual in children between the ages of three and eight.
- Fears are a common issue in childhood. Fear of the dark is one of the most common childhood fears; other fears include fear of animals such as dogs, fear of insects or fear of storms
Occasional anxiety is perfectly normal in childhood and most children succeed in overcoming this anxiety as they grow older. That said, some children have a harder time than others outgrowing their fears and worries, and they therefore find it harder to deal with anxiety-provoking situations.
This article will focus on:
- The causes of anxiety in childhood
- The signs and symptoms of anxiety in children
- How to help your child cope with anxiety
- When to seek help for your child’s anxiety
Where does your child’s anxiety come from?
Anxiety is a normal and rather common emotion in children. It may be caused by family events such as frequent home or school changes, an unstable family environment, death or illness in the family, a stressful school environment, and so on.
Science says that anxious parents are more likely to pass on their anxiety to their kids. That said, some children are born worriers, meaning that they are more prone to worry than others.
Stress and anxiety are touching more children today than ever before. According to the available research, anxiety affects almost one in eight children.
While some amount of anxiety is normal, this emotion can affect how your child learns and how they interact with the world around them. Some studies suggest that anxiety leads to poorer memory and to poorer performance.
While it is easy to recognize some signs of anxiety such as separation anxiety or teary and clingy behavior, other symptoms of anxiety are more difficult to identify.
Anxiety in children is not always easy to detect because it is an emotion that has perfected the art of concealing itself.
This means that an anxious child may display behavior that is easily mistaken for something else: misbehavior, aggressivity, anger, and so. Also, young children rarely have the words to describe their anxiety, meaning that it may be easily overlooked.
In other words, a child who is feeling anxious about not being able to read as well as their classmates may lash out, play the class clown or even display aggressive behavior in an attempt to hide their anxiety.
That said, there are several common signs of anxiety. Here are 20 signs and symptoms of often found in anxious kids.
How do you know if your child has anxiety? 20 signs and symptoms of anxiety in children
1) Distraction. Anxiety makes your child focus on whatever it is that is making them anxious rather than on what is going on around them. This may lead to behavior such as lack of focus and concentration or fidgeting.
2) Situation avoidance. Situation avoidance is a common strategy used by anxious children to avoid situations that make them uncomfortable. This could be reflected in your child’s avoidance to respond in class or even to speak in front of their classmates. It may also be reflected in your child wanting to skip school or to avoid participating in certain activities.
3) Restlessness. Your child’s restlessness may be a sign of anxiety. They may find it hard to keep still or may keep moving from one activity to another at dizzying speeds.
4) Playing the “class clown”. Many children who “act up” in school often do so to distract themselves from uncomfortable feelings. Playing the class clown is their way of dealing with difficult emotions that they are unable to manage.
5) Constantly crying. A child’s constant crying may be the sign of anxiety, especially if there is no clear reason behind their behavior or if their reaction is disproportionate to the situation.
6) Aggressive behavior. There is a relationship between anxiety and aggression. Your child may become angry if they are unable to understand and communicate their feelings.
Anxiety is often sparked by underlying fears, and your child’s anxiety may turn into anger in an attempt to help them feel like they are in control.
Anger can therefore be an unconscious expression of your child’s anxiety. Getting angry quickly or out of control behavior may also be a sign of their inability to handle their feelings of anxiety.
7) Clingy behavior. While clingy behavior is quite common in early childhood, its persistence may signal a child’s inability to deal with anxious feelings.
8) Poor eating habits. Your child’s anxiety may be reflected in changes in their eating habits. A decreased or an increased appetite could be the sign of anxiety in your child. This is especially true if there have been recent changes in these habits.
9) Having trouble in school. A child constantly having trouble in school can be the sign of anxiety. His reactions to his anxiety may be mistaken for “problem behavior”.
10) Poor memory. It makes sense that an anxious child will find it more difficult to remember information. Anxiety distracts them and makes them feel uncomfortable, meaning that it is harder for them to pay attention to new information.
This could also explain differences in grades – if your child is more anxious in a particular class, their grades and behavior in that class are likely to be different than in other classes.
11) Nervous habits. Certain habits such as nail biting or skin picking are common symptoms of anxiety.
12) Poor sleeping habits. One of the least known signs of anxiety is poor sleeping habits. This may be reflected in bedtime battles, waking up frequently in the middle of the night, and more frequent nightmares. An anxious child could also begin sleepwalking.
13) Feeling tense. Feelings of tenseness, irritability, and like one is on edge can also be a symptom of anxiety in your child. Your child may also experience muscle tension.
14) Negativity. Your child’s constantly negative thoughts may be a sign of anxiety. Remember that anxiety and fear are closely linked, meaning that your child’s fears may lead to their anxiety.
15) Multiple fears. While fear of the unknown is common in childhood, multiple fears such as fear of the dark, fear of animals, fear of being alone or fear of leaving one’s home could all be symptoms of anxiety.
16) Frequent urination. Frequent urination is common in anxious children.
17) Fatigue. Fatigue is an unknown but common symptom of anxiety in children.
18) Illness. Anxiety is such a powerful emotion that it can manifest in the body in different ways. Some of the physical symptoms of anxiety include tummy aches, nausea, headaches and shortness of breath.
19) Bedwetting. While it is rare for an anxious child who had stopped bedwetting to start again, stress and anxiety may make bedwetting worse.
20) Social withdrawal. Social withdrawal in children can be a sign of anxiety. This may include behavior such as avoiding social activities in the presence of peers and avoid social interaction.
Your child may not want to do fun things or may no longer enjoy doing them. They could also withdraw from family and friends.
Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling for adults, so you can imagine how uncomfortable it can feel for children. Many children struggle with anxiety because they are yet to learn how to manage strong emotions.
The good news is that there are simple strategies that you can use to teach your child about managing their anxiety.
Parenting tips for managing child anxiety
Dealing with the unknown is scary and difficult for many people. That’s why there has been an increase in anxiety, depression and stress ever since the outbreak of Covid-19. According to the US Census Bureau, this pandemic led to an 11% increase in anxiety or depression, and there are similar patterns worldwide.
Anxiety is common in children and it often affects their behavior. We now know that change is a frequent source of anxiety in childhood.
While some children are able to deal with change situations relatively easily, some struggle with feelings of anxiety, worry and stress, leading to physical (tummy aches, headaches, sleep disturbances, nightmares, picky eating) and psychological effects (anxiety, difficulty concentrating, irritability, worry, stress).
Other sources of anxiety include the family context (regular disputes, death, illness or separation, cases of abuse or neglect, etc) and, as I mentioned earlier, some children may have a genetic predisposition toward anxiety.
We now know if left untreated, childhood anxiety can lead to psychological disorders in adolescence and adulthood. We also know that how you yourself deal with anxiety-provoking situations has an impact on your child’s ability to deal effectively with these situations.
A relatively recent study found that children who grew up with anxious parents were more likely to be anxious themselves.
This study revealed that genes had little to do with anxiety – children took cues from their parents, and this is what dictated their behavior.
In other words, the children of anxious parents became anxious because their parents transmitted this model of dealing with anxiety-provoking situations.
In an even more recent study, researchers found that helping parents change their behavior in the face of anxiety had a very positive impact in reducing childhood and adolescent anxiety.
In this study, 124 children suffering from anxiety randomly received either a cognitive behavioral therapy or their parents received the SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions) parent-based treatment.
The parents learned how to support their anxious children and effective ways to give them the confidence to cope with anxiety.
The study found that after treatment by independent evaluators who were unaware of the treatment the children had received, approximately 87% of the children whose parents had participated in the SPACE program, and 75% of the children who had participated in the CBT program had significantly fewer anxiety symptoms.
Both these studies show that how you react to anxiety-provoking situations can either teach your child to be anxious when faced with those situations, or give them the tools to deal more effectively with anxiety.
Here are four things you can start doing today to help your child cope better with anxiety.
Four ways to help your anxious child
1) Pay attention to how you respond to anxiety-provoking situations
Your child watches how you react to anxiety-provoking situations and copies how to behave in such situations themselves.
By reacting anxiously, you model anxious behavior child. By maintaining a calm demeanor, you show your child that anxious situations are manageable. This means paying attention to your facial expressions or to the words you use when talking about a difficult situation.
This may be difficult to do if you are struggling with anxiety yourself, but practice can help you improve your reaction to anxiety-provoking situations. If you are unable to react calmy to a given situation, leave the room and take the time to deal with the situation alone and to calm down.
2) Family accommodation makes your child’s anxiety worse
It is not uncommon to “try and protect” an anxious child. This has been defined as family accommodation, and it involves behavior such as avoiding situations that provoke your child’s anxiety, constantly reassuring your child, or “giving in” to practices such as always accompanying and staying with them when they visit friends or letting them sleep in your bed.
Such practices actually make your child’s behavior worse. Instead, help your child gradually overcome their anxiety.
For example, if they do not want to stay at a friend’s house alone, gradually reduce the time you spend with them when they visit friends. Shorter visits can also be an easy way to help them accept visiting friends alone.
3) Talking about your anxiety can help your child manage theirs
Managing your anxiety more effectively does not mean “never being anxious”. Anxiety is a normal and even helpful emotion in certain situations. What’s more, suppressing your emotions can be harmful and can have far-reaching negative consequences.
Young children need to know that everyone feels the same emotions as they do. Reassuring them that their emotions are normal and validating their feelings is important if you want to help them learn to express their anxiety more effectively.
Explaining your anxiety to your child is therefore an effective way of helping them cope with their own anxiety. It shows them that anxiety is normal.
That said, it is important for them to also see how you cope with that anxiety so explaining what made you anxious AND what you did to feel less anxious is more helpful in teaching them to deal with anxiety.
Modeling positive ways of dealing with anxiety will help teach your child how to manage their own anxiety.
Talking about your anxiety is great because it helps teach your child about appropriate coping mechanisms. It can also provide an opportunity to help them come up with different ways that they themselves can use to deal with anxiety-provoking situations.
4) Introduce your anxious child to meditation and mindfulness practices
The available research suggests that meditation and mindfulness practices are beneficial for the anxious child. These studies say that children who practice meditation are better able to deal with stress and worries and have fewer sleep and behavioral issues.
The good news is that there are very simple strategies that you can use to introduce your child to these practices.
Lasting solution to helping your child manage their anxiety
Most children are unable to handle big emotions by themselves. They have to be taught to do so. If you have an anxious child, they need to learn that anxiety is normal and they have what it takes to deal with it effectively.
The most effective way of helping your child learn to manage their anxiety is to help them develop a “coping toolbox”. This means helping them determine what they can do to feel better when they are feeling anxious.
Fostering your child’s emotional intelligence is the first place to start.
First, they need to learn about identifying their emotions and those of others. Second, they need to understand what triggers emotions and how those emotions feel in the body. Third, they need your help to develop coping strategies that they can use in the face of emotion-provoking situations.
The Emotions Kit is filled with all the age-appropriate resources you need to help your child manage big emotions more effectively.
When to seek help for your child’s anxiety
Many childhood anxieties disappear as children grow older and as they learn to deal with difficult emotions more effectively. That said, anxiety in some children may require the intervention of a specialist.
Anxiety is common and normal behavior in childhood, but there are occasions on which it is advisable to seek professional reassurance. Please seek professional help if:
- Your child has crippling anxiety that is affecting their family and school life
- Your child’s anxiety seems to be getting worse despite your attempts to help them
- Your child’s anxiety is accompanied by serious physical or psychological issues
- Your child’s anxiety is ruining their school and social life
- You feel unable to help your child by yourself
It is important to seek help if you are feeling overwhelmed by your child’s anxiety, especially because anxious behavior could be the sign of an anxiety disorder. Here are a few disorders common in childhood.
Types of childhood anxieties
1) Separation Anxiety
Although separation anxiety is common in childhood, it usually abates by age four. The signs include great difficulty to leave parents or caregivers (refusal to visit friends or go to a party alone, refusal to sleep alone, difficulty going to school, etc.)
Phobias refer to your child extreme reactions to specific triggers. Most children outgrow their phobias as they grow older.
3) Selective Mutism
Children with selective mutism are very picky about who they talk to. Although this behavior is often perceived as shyness, it often relates to a child’s extreme anxiety when they are expected to talk.
4) Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder refers to excessive anxiety lasting at least six months and brought about by more than one thing. The distress caused by this disorder prevents your child from functioning normally because it has an impact on their everyday life.
For example, a child with disorder may eat or sleep poorly for months, and this can have an impact on their behavior or on their academic performance.
Physical complaints (stomach and head aches, etc) are also not uncommon in children with this disorder.
5) Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
A child with OCD has repetitive behaviors that they perform because of their obsession with something.
6) Panic Attacks
Panic attacks are more common in older children and include symptoms such as feeling out of breath, feeling numb, having palpitations, experiencing chills or hot flashes, sweating or shivering, and so on.
Strengthening your child’s emotional intelligence using age-appropriate tools can help them learn to better cope with their anxiety. But please seek help if you are worried or feeling overwhelmed by their behavior.
References and further resources
Parental Anxiety and Child Symptomatology: An Examinzation of Additive and Interactive Effects of Parent Psychopathology
Anxiety and working memory capacity: A meta-analysis and narrative review
The Intergenerational Transmission of Anxiety: A Children-of-Twins Study
Supportive parenting can reduce child’s anxiety
Anxiety & Depression Association of America
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