Anxiety: Understanding the Signs and Symptoms

Anxiety: Understanding the Signs and Symptoms

It is not unusual for kids, even our youngest ones, to sometimes feel anxious. There are all kinds of stressors – big and small – that we can run into in our everyday lives and it affects different people in different ways. Anxiety affects 40 million adults in the U.S. and is the most common mental health issue facing Americans. It is important for parents to be able to distinguish between normal anxiety and stress and how to spot if there might be bigger challenges that need attention.

There are typically physical, emotional, and behavioral signs of anxiety to be on the lookout for. The symptoms listed below are common for children experiencing anxiety. Before you read further though, take a breath, and remember to keep in mind that anxiety is not a weakness. You just need some tools to help you and your child figure it out together.

Physical Signs of Anxiety

Children who are experiencing anxiety might display the following physical symptoms:

  • Often complains of headaches or stomach aches, even though there is no medical basis for them
  • Refuses to eat snacks or lunch at daycare or school
  • Won’t use bathrooms except at home
  • Is restless, fidgety, hyperactive or distracted (even without having ADHD)
  • Starts to shake or sweat in intimidating situations
  • Constantly tenses muscles
  • Has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep

Emotional Signs of Anxiety

Children who are experiencing anxiety might display the following emotional symptoms:

  • Cries a lot
  • Is very sensitive
  • Becomes grouchy or angry without any clear reason
  • Is afraid of making even minor mistakes
  • Has panic attacks (or is afraid of having panic attacks)
  • Worries about things that are far in the future (for example, worrying about starting middle school in third grade)
  • Is worried or afraid during drop-ffs (at daycare, school, relatives’ homes, etc.)
  • Has frequent nightmares about losing a parent or loved one

Behavioral Signs of Anxiety

Children who are experiencing anxiety might display the following behavioral symptoms:

  • Asks “what if?” constantly (for example, “what if an earthquakes happens?”)
  • Avoids joining in during class activities like circle time
  • Remains silent or preoccupied when expected to work with others
  • Refuses to go to school
  • Stays inside alone at lunch or recess
  • Avoids social situations with other kids, like birthday parties or extracurricular activities
  • Constantly seeks approval from parents and caregivers, teachers, and friends
  • Says “I can’t do it!” without a real reason
  • Has meltdowns or tantrums

Take a Closer Look

Understanding what’s causing the anxiety is the first step toward helping. Try to take a closer look at the behavior and see if you can pick up on patterns. This is especially important if you are concerned about these symptoms in a younger child, as they are not likely to be able to articulate their feelings themselves. This would also be important for a child who also has learning challenges such as ADHA, dyslexia or is on the autism spectrum.

Here is an anxiety tracker by Understood for All, Inc. (UFA) that might help.

Carefully observe and record the details of the anxiety over time. Notice if you see patterns such as the behavior prominent on particular days of the week, times of the day, in specific settings, etc. Share your observations with the people who are in a position to provide support for your child. These include caregivers, teachers, counselors, and pediatricians.

Typical Anxiety vs. Anxiety Problems

All children (and adults!) feel anxious every now and then. It is a normal part of everyday life and, as everyday life gets more challenging, so too will the opportunities for anxiety. It is important to evaluate whether the anxiety that you may be seeing in your child is typical and age appropriate or something more.

A Warning: Parents need to be careful jumping to conclusions. You will have your own emotions attached to your child’s feelings and it’s easy to jump to an exaggerated assumption about your child’s physical and emotional well-being. This means not only observing the behavior but looking for facts and logical explanations associated with it. For example, if you have noticed a change in your child’s anger and irritability, could it be that arguments with siblings are the culprit? Or if difficulty sleeping is a problem, is there a problem with pillows or broken bed slats that could be contributing?

According to the U.S. National Institutes of Mental Health, there are five major types of anxiety disorders found in children:

  • Separation Anxiety Disorder
  • Specific Phobia
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Anxiety Disorder (Not Specified)

Here is a table designed by UFA that can help compare the differences between everyday challenges with anxiety and those that require more serious attention.

There are lots of ways to assist your child if s/he is having trouble handling anxiety. Don’t allow shame to prevent you from seeking help if you are not sure what is going on or how to help or if you are feeling like your child needs professional attention. Developing coping strategies and skills takes time for everyone involved - children and parents, too. And early intervention can make a world of difference in the transition toward improved mental health.

To get more information, check out these related Sound Vision articles:

19 Tips to Help Your Child Deal with Stress

How To Support Your Child Through Anxiety

Add new comment