Anxiety is an emotion that brings with it a whole host of uncomfortable symptoms in the body. These symptoms, in turn, motivate us to avoid the things in life that make us anxious. Think about the people, places, and situations that you avoid. You probably avoid these things because they make you feel uncomfortable. The same holds true for children. Many things in life can cause them anxiety, and we don’t always appreciate just how new, uncomfortable and scary the world is for them. Getting a cut and bruise, experiencing rejection from a peer, being separated from a parent, or being talked to by a strange adult are just a few examples of things can cause anxiety in kids. And there are, of course, more intense situations such as experiencing divorce, moving to a new school, or being bullied. Knowing what to look for is an important first step for helping a child with anxiety. Here are some signs to look for.
Physical symptoms (difficulty sleeping, restlessness, stomach pain, headaches, loss of appetite, muscle pain, etc): All can result from anxiety. Keep an eye out for when these symptoms tend to occur. Did they start after a certain event? Do they happen at a certain point in the day? You may find patterns that point to a certain trigger in their life, such as social situations, family gatherings, tests or projects in school, and even meal times.
Excessive worrying: Is your child unable to stop thinking about certain things? Do they have a lot of questions about a future event? Or a specific topic? Common worries can involve germs and/or illness, bodily injury and/or death, school/social/athletic performance, God and religion, having to make decisions, changes to the schedule, and weight/body issues.
Behavior problems: Sometimes behavior problems are just behavior problems. Acting out can be an effective strategy to get more TV time, candy, or attention from a parent. In these situations the usual parenting strategies of positive reinforcement, consequences, and structure are enough to deal with the issue. However, sometimes behavior problems can result from anxiety. In these instances, a child is having tantrums and acting out as a result of being overwhelmed with fear, worry or discomfort. In these cases, rewards and consequences will likely have little impact on the behavior and the anxiety will have to be treated. Accommodations will have to be made around what is overwhelming the child so that their anxiety does not rise to the level of having meltdowns. The anxiety issue can then be worked on gradually. Some signs that the behavior is anxiety driven include 1) a lack of concern for any punishments and/or rewards and 2) the acting out and/or meltdowns occur in response to a trigger in the environment such as homework time, getting dressed in the morning, or certain topics being discussed.
Rituals: It is very common for children to develop rituals to deal with their anxiety. They may have a lucky number or charm, need to line up their belongings a certain way, have to say goodbye to each of their stuffed animals when they leave the house, or complete a prayer with you at bedtime a certain way. If your child is performing rituals, this is probably in response to the anxiety of childhood. Keep in mind that your child may not look anxious as long as they are able to do their rituals. However, they may experience a lot of anxiety if anyone were to prevent them from completing the rituals. In most cases, this sort of behavior is a part of normal development. However, if you notice that over time your child’s rituals become more rigid, time consuming, and/or impairing, this may be a sign of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and may require treatment.
Okay. So my child is having anxiety. Now what? A majority of the time, there is nothing special you need to do. Simply go about your parenting the best way you know how. Provide your child with physical and emotional comfort, make the most of any teachable moments and, most likely, your child’s anxiety will decrease over time. Also, if you can identify the things that are making your child anxious, make sure you are exposing them to these things in a gradual manner so that they can learn to tolerate these “triggers.” For example, if your child is having meltdowns when you leave them at daycare, you may have to spend a few days there with them (if your daycare allows this) and then slowly increase the time they are there without you. In some cases, however, anxiety symptoms may persist and even worsen. One of the indicators that your child is having a chronic anxiety issue is that any comfort and reassurance you provide either a) doesn’t seem to work or 2) only calms their worries for a short while. As an example, you may find yourself providing your child with daily reassurance that they and their loved ones are going to be safe. In these cases, it is important to seek out help. In this day and age, there is no reason not to take advantage of the mental health resources available to properly support your child’s healthy development. Start by talking to a doctor or therapist. And if you don’t like the person you talk to, don’t give up. Get more referrals and find someone who you like.
Also keep in mind that the symptoms I’ve listed here can result from other diagnoses such as ADHD, Autism, and Oppositional-Defiant Disorder, among others. If you feel confused by your child’s symptoms, make sure you speak with a medical or mental health professional. Getting the right diagnosis can take time, but it is also essential to getting the right help for your child.