One of the greatest challenges of parenting lies in trying to understand the sometimes baffling behaviour of children. When a child suddenly refuses to do something simple and routine, for example, or throws a tantrum with no apparent provocation, we’re left searching for answers.
If your child’s odd behaviour isn’t being triggered by something obvious, like fatigue or hunger, it’s worthwhile to consider whether or not anxiety might be the culprit. Though many adults think of kids as being inherently carefree (thanks to their lack of adult responsibilities), research shows that kids experience anxiety fairly frequently. As is the case with adults, the “fight or flight” reflex of young people can be triggered by fear of rejection, isolation, loss, humiliation, embarrassment, or simple wariness about the unknown. We’re just not always aware that it’s happening because children struggle to find the right words to express their feelings. While an adult will say, “I’m scared of making a fool of myself in front of my colleagues during my presentation,” a child will often feel “off” without being able to name why. He will then usually act on the physical sensations that accompany his anxiety; e.g., he’ll say he can’t go to school because his stomach is upset.
This inability to verbalize complex feelings can allow childhood anxiety to remain invisible for months or even years. Not only does this amplify the distress of the child in question, it deprives him of important opportunities to learn how to manage fearful feelings healthily. Catching the signs of anxiety when your child is still young (and equipping him with the tools he needs to fight his fears) can decrease the likelihood that his anxiety will turn into a lifelong problem.
12 Signs That Your Child is Struggling With Anxiety
If your child has two or more signs listed below, we recommend taking our free online screening test for child anxiety.
1. Your child frequently complains of nausea or a stomach ache, but there’s nothing medically wrong with him.
When we’re anxious, our bodies do everything they can to preserve energy (in order to facilitate fighting or fleeing from the situation). They direct blood flow to the brain and away from the process of digestion. This can cause feelings of nausea or “butterflies” in the stomach, leading anxious kids to worry that they’re on the verge of vomiting. Additionally, anxiety can cause the gastrointestinal tract to contract and spasm, and these spasms can sometimes be painful. Because most children have a fear of vomiting, these feelings often make them even more anxious and one state perpetuates the other.
If your child is complaining of an upset stomach but does not appear to be ill, try explaining the above to him and reassuring him that he won’t actually throw up. If your child’s symptoms improve once he understands what’s going on (and realizes it’s physically safe), then it’s likely that anxiety was causing them. When your child is completely calm, try coaching him through doing a few deep breathing exercises, telling him to use those the next time he feels sick to his stomach. Deep breathing helps to neutralize the neurochemicals that cause anxiety and can therefore combat the feelings associated with having a “nervous stomach.”
2. Your child sometimes loses his appetite for no apparent reason.
The digestion-slowing effects of anxiety can reduce appetite, causing kids to complain of “not being hungry” at mealtimes. If anxiety is causing your child’s lack of appetite, you can expect to see his hunger come back to life as soon as his anxiety has passed.
3. Your child will do just about anything to avoid going to school.
Most kids will exhibit a lack of academic enthusiasm from time to time. However, when a child persistently refuses to go to school or goes to great lengths to feign illness, anxiety is often a factor in his behaviour. Sometimes, it’s anxiety about something at school, like a fear of being bullied or doing poorly on a test. (As such, it’s always a good idea to take a closer look at your child’s school experience when this occurs—don’t assume he’s just being shy or lazy. Ask his teacher if he appears to be struggling with a particular subject or experiencing social problems.) Other times, the child’s anxiety has nothing to do with the school environment itself; he just wants to remain where he feels safest because he’s struggling with generalized anxiety. If this is the case, you shouldn’t allow your child to avoid going to school. The more your child is removed from the school environment, the more unfamiliar (and therefore frightening) it will become. Instead, you should do your best to make him feel supported in being brave and attending school even when his anxiety is telling him not to.
4. Your child often feels sad or cries for no reason, but he doesn’t display other signs of depression.
Sadness and anxiety are both controlled by the same part of the brain (the amygdala), so it’s not uncommon for anxiety to manifest as tearful meltdowns or episodes of melancholy. Fortunately, this symptom of anxiety can be addressed by the provision of calm, loving support. Most experts recommend just holding your child and letting him “cry it out,” because crying releases tension.
5. Your child is prone to unprovoked angry outbursts.
Though many anxious children express their fearfulness through avoidance, some kids are more apt to respond with “fight” than “flight.” When they feel fear, they act out, throwing tantrums or lashing out at parents or peers. Because the amygdala is so active when we’re anxious, allowing emotions and impulses free reign, these outbursts can be shockingly severe. As a parent, it’s vital to recognize the fact that your child isn’t trying to test your limits when he behaves this way. On the contrary, he’s probably feeling ashamed of his own actions because he’s unable to control himself.
When you’re dealing with a child who is both anxious and angry, balance is key. You should redirect your child away from harmful behaviours (like hitting and name calling) while also giving him emotional support. Make sure he knows that while certain actions aren’t acceptable, you understand why he’s acting the way he is and love him unconditionally.
Once your child has calmed down, try to provide him with better tools for expressing his anxiety so that he can stop himself from engaging in destructive behaviours in the future. A bit of physical activity, like running or spinning around briefly, will often allow these kids to release the nervous energy that’s driving their aggression. (Note that this tactic is an excellent way to reduce fidgeting in anxious kids as well.) Regular exercise has also been shown to increase GABA, an important neurochemical that helps to reduce anxiety. Alternately, some children benefit from hitting a pillow or ripping up pieces of paper when they’re on the verge of having an outburst.
6. Your child is always asking, “What if…?”
Anxious kids, like anxious adults, tend to be extremely preoccupied with the future. Their brains, in an attempt to stay safe, fixate on potential outcomes. As a result, they try to minimize any variables they interpret as being risky. The fewer unknowns there are, the more secure these kids feel.
When your child projects into the future, don’t make the mistake of invalidating his feelings while you try to reassure him. (E.g., avoid telling him, “That’s nothing to worry about,” or saying, “That’s not going to happen.”) Instead, walk him through the steps he could take even if the thing he’s worried about happening does indeed occur. When your child realizes that he’s not helpless—that he’s capable of devising solutions to issues that trouble him—not only will his anxiety decrease, he’ll feel more confident as well.
7. Your child needs to pee more often than his same-age peers.
Once again, this is an area where physical issues should be ruled out before you assume anxiety is the culprit, especially if your child doesn’t exhibit other signs of chronic anxiety. However, researchers have long identified a connection between fear and the need to urinate (though this connection still isn’t well understood). If you notice that your child needs to pee not only frequently, but specifically more often when he’s in stressful situations, then he may well be dealing with severe anxiety.
The best thing you can do in this situation is let your child know that anxiety can cause the need to pee. This will help to prevent the development of secondary worries, such as your child worrying about what will happen if he doesn’t always have immediate access to a bathroom.
8. Your child regularly complains about aches and pains that have no apparent medical cause.
The “fight or flight” hormones that the body releases when it’s under stress can cause our muscles to become tense, prompting feelings of soreness or weakness. When your child complains that his arms or legs are achy, or that he has a headache, guide him through a “whole body” relaxation exercise. Ask your child to tighten his muscles briefly, then release them while breathing slowly and deeply. He should tense just a few muscles at a time, starting by flexing his toes and working upwards until his whole body is relaxed.
9. Your child has a great deal of difficulty falling asleep.
Have you ever had your mind “grind” at night, becoming so preoccupied with stressful thoughts that you couldn’t fall asleep? For anxious kids, this mind grind is often a nightly occurrence, even when nothing obviously bad is going on in their lives. This leaves them feeling fatigued, which further lowers their stress tolerance.
When your anxious child resists going to bed or refuses to sleep on his own, don’t misread his behaviour as a willful refusal to comply with house rules about bedtimes. Take the time to sit with him briefly and encourage him to meditate on positive thoughts and feelings as he settles down. You can also try to get your child proactively involved in the process of soothing his nighttime fears. For example, you can ask him to pick out a stuffed animal that he finds comforting, or you might ask him to help you make a calming mug of warm milk for you both. Younger kids also benefit from having positive, lighthearted stories read to them while they drift off to sleep.
10. Your child strongly resists attempting new things.
Anxious kids are often so scared of failing that they don’t try – even when the proposed task or endeavour seems very simple and nonthreatening to the rest of us. Rather than getting excited about riding a bike for the first time, starting school, or trying a new sport, these kids react with apprehension and sometimes outright refusal.
Above all else, anxious kids need to know that it’s okay to fail. They need to know that every time they fall off a bike, they’re not suffering a humiliating defeat; they’re just learning how to keep their balance better the next time they try to ride. Sharing stories of times when you “messed up” and what you learned from the experience can help set your child’s mind at ease when he’s trying something unfamiliar. Likewise, you should be careful to avoid criticizing yourself harshly in front of your child. Your child will create his own approach to setbacks by watching how you handle yours, so try to demonstrate self-forgiveness and a willingness to pick yourself up and try again.
11. Your child isn’t growing out of his “attachment phase.”
All kids go through a clingy period sometime during their toddler years; this is a normal part of development and usually nothing to worry about. However, when a child exhibits pronounced separation anxiety past the age of five, anxiety is often at the root of his fearfulness. Left unchecked, it will inhibit his ability to become independent.
Handling separation anxiety requires a loving, calm, and firm approach. If you get upset or stressed when confronted with your child’s anxiety over saying “goodbye” to you each day, you’ll further imprint the idea that even temporary partings are emotionally painful. It’s best to give your child a warm hug while smiling at him, then acknowledge his feelings (such as by saying, “I understand, I’ll miss you too, but we’ll see each other again in a few hours.”) and say goodbye cheerfully. Keep the interaction relatively brief, if possible; the longer you draw out the act of parting, the more time your child will have to get anxious about it. Over time, this pattern of easy, caring partings will train your child’s brain to recognize that there’s nothing to fear when you say “goodbye.”
12. Your child has a hard time making new friends, even though he has good social skills.
Your child might be charming, polite, and empathetic—but that won’t help him socialize if he’s always holding himself back due to anxiety. Anxious kids often exhibit a pattern of avoiding social interaction until they feel “safe” with a group or individual. Once they do, however, they can become quite gregarious and outgoing. (Kids with social skill deficits, on the other hand, show a more persistent inability to integrate with groups.) Allowing your child to have friends over after school might help him open up more quickly, as he’ll be interacting in an environment that already feels safe and familiar to him.
Though anxiety can be very troubling for kids and their parents alike, it’s highly treatable. Early intervention and calm, patient guidance can go a long way towards helping anxious kids learn to manage their fearful feelings. Better still, children who are taught how to cope healthily with stress often demonstrate better resilience than their peers once they reach adulthood. They overcome setbacks more easily and understand that they have the capacity to change the world around them, making it a better and safer place for everyone.