Anxiety has a nasty way of not only afflicting adults in the multitude of ways we encounter it everyday, but it can also cause significant distress for children and adolescents too. My next few posts will be about anxiety and how it is experienced in children and teens. Along the way I’ll also provide parents some techniques that you can try with your own children should you notice signs of anxiety or if your child is experiencing an anxiety disorder.
First of all, let me make this clear: Kids do get anxious. Kids do get stressed.
So before I hear one more person remark, “They’re kids! What do they have to be stressed about?!” or “Kids don’t get anxiety!” I want to stop you now. If you feel this way and I’m unable to change your mind, I hope you will at least not say these things to your own kids because statements like these are some of the most unhelpful, invalidating things that your child can hear if he indeed is experiencing anxiety. And if he’s fortunate enough not to be struggling with an anxiety disorder, hearing adults say these types of things only helps to attach the stigma to having anxiety. It’s just not helpful, and it’s simply not true that kids don’t experience anxiety and that kids don’t get stressed.
Occasional anxiety is an expected and normal part of life. A child might worry about an upcoming test or school assignment, for example. Or they may worry about this weekend’s soccer game and if they will do well. Very young children go through a developmentally normal period where they might suffer from anxiety when they’re separated from their caregivers. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. Kids who struggle with anxiety disorders experience intense, excessive, persistent worry or fear, and it doesn’t go away easily. In fact, without treatment, it may even get worse over time. The symptoms felt with an anxiety disorder can interfere with their daily activities and day-to-day functioning, such as in school performance and interpersonal relationships.
There are several types of anxiety disorders that can kids can experience, just like adults: generalized anxiety, social anxiety, separation anxiety, specific phobias, panic, and obsessive-compulsive anxiety. In part 1 of my series about anxiety in children, we’re just going to focus on what anxiety generally looks like when kids experience it, because you may be surprised to learn that it can actually look different from what you’d expect if you were to examine an anxious adult.
What Does Anxiety in Children Look Like?
When kids experience anxiety, they’re likely to notice it affecting them in three ways:
- Through mental processes or thoughts that they have… Anxious kids will have thoughts that center around some type of perceived or real danger or threat.
- Physically in the body… When a child becomes anxious, his body becomes more “pumped up” or aroused. This is caused by the fight or flight (or freeze) response that all humans experience as a built-in survival mechanism. A child may notice his heart beating faster, more rapid breathing, sweating, nausea, and so on.
- Affecting their behavior… Children experiencing anxiety may freeze, fidget, pace, cry, cling, shake, or behave in any number of ways. Anxiety also usually involves some type of avoidance, such as an obvious avoidance of a specific animal or a more subtle avoidance, such as a child who chooses to spend all their time helping to clean up the dinner dishes so they don’t have to talk to anyone at a family or social gathering.
The amount of anxiety varies from child to child and can vary from situation to situation.
Following are examples of some visible signs of anxiety you might see in your child. Note that some of these may be present in the experience of normal, expected anxiety as well as in anxiety disorders. Your child need not experience all of these signs to indicate that he is struggling with anxiety; he may may only display one or two, or he may only display less obvious signs and none of the more visible ones:
- physical distress (shaking, crying, hyperventilating, screaming)
- fleeing, escaping
- outright statements of anxiety
- outright questions expressing fears
- refusal to engage in activities that cause distress
- extreme distress upon contact with feared object
- refusal to be alone or without a parent
- repeated rituals
Below are less obvious signs of anxiety you might see:
- clingy behavior
- avoidance behavior
- complaints of physical illness or physical ailments (i.e., headache, stomachache)
- reassurance-seeking behavior
- argumentative behavior
- reluctance to try new things
- extreme shyness, sensitivity
- being easily distracted
- slowness, procrastination
- overly cautious behavior, indecision
- exacting standards
- sleep difficulties
- physical aggression
- threats of suicide to avoid anxiety-producing situations
As you can see, whether your child is experiencing an anxiety disorder or anxiety or worry that is more expected and normal, anxiety can look like a number of things that may or may not look like how we would expect anxiety to look. Most commonly, I see anxiety in children and teenagers present as irritability, aggression, avoidance behavior, sleep difficulties, and complaints of physical illness. It’s more common for me to see one of these signs before I ever notice signs of what we as a society thinks anxiety looks like in general (e.g., fear, nervousness, shakiness).
Stay up to date and follow along for more upcoming posts about anxiety in children and teens, including tips that parents can use to help alleviate their child’s worries!