I thought I knew the signs of anxiety, but I didn’t realize how little I knew until I completely missed the signs in my own child. What I didn’t realize is that children will show their anxiety in ways that can be incredibly hard to decipher if you don’t know what to ask or how to read the signs.
ANXIETY IN CHILDREN
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Once I understood the signs of anxiety in kids, suddenly I couldn’t stop seeing them in the children in my life. Those bizzare behaviours that made no sense, and I was sure kids did just to drive me crazy, made perfect sense.
What I didn’t understand before, was that kids lack the vocabulary conceptualize and share their anxiety. Plus they are still developing their self awareness skills, so they can’t take all those big feelings and make sense of them all. They need help. Heck, many adults I know are still struggling to learn these skills. So it shouldn’t be surprising kids struggle with this too.
What I didn’t expect was how kids show their anxiety. I’ve come to learn, if it seems like my kid is giving me a hard time, without fail it has nothing to do with me or any ill intentions towards me. It has everything to do with them having a hard time and struggling with how to ask for help.
Signs of Anxiety in Children
Here is a list of all the different signs of anxiety that I have come to recognize in the children in my life. It is far from an exhaustive list. Anxiety requires that you be a bit of a detective. First to recognize it as anxiety, then to figure out the triggers and how to help lessen the impact of anxiety when it becomes overwhelming.
Remember, some anxiety is perfectly normal. It is a natural coping mechanism and everyone experiences anxiety sometimes. It is when anxiety becomes constant, when it impacts a child’s ability to function, that you need to start taking steps to help them.
For now I am focusing on the first step in your detective journey, recognizing the signs of anxiety in your children. These signs are kids ways of telling us they need help coping with the big feelings and sensations in their bodies.
Yup, I think this one happens all the time. That twisty, knot in the stomach feeling that comes with anxiety, can often feel like a stomachache to kids. Anxiety can be severe enough to cause feeling of nausea and even vomiting.
My oldest struggled with chronic migraine disorder, but one of his biggest triggers was anxiety. Social anxiety, where he had to face crowds with lots of noise always set off his anxiety and headaches.
Sometimes kids will mention they are finding it hard to breath, but more often I see them gasping or sucking in air as they try to speak.
My youngest was so adorable when his anxiety would kick in. He would put a hand on his chest, look up at me with his gorgeous chestnut brown eyes and say, “Mommy, my heart is beeping!” That feeling of a racing heart can be a little scary for kids.
Sweating and/or Flushed
As part of the body response to anxiety, it trigger the fight, flight freeze system. This can result in many physical responses including getting sweaty or the skin becoming flushed (turning red).
OK, this might seem strange to some of you, but I’ve seen it a lot. Kids complain about itchy skin or start scratching their skin compulsively. I believe this ties into the above condition of being sweaty and having flushed skin feeling itchy to the child.
This one I believe can come from two places. The first is part of the body preparing for fight, flight, freeze due to the anxiety might feel like pain due to tension in the muscles. I also feel that sometimes kids say they have body aches as part of avoidance or procrastination. This does not minimize the impact of the anxiety. It is simply their way of trying to make sense of the big feelings in their body and communicate their need for help.
Once a child learns that certain situations trigger big feelings and strange sensations in their body, they may not know it is anxiety, but they know they don’t like those feelings and will try to avoid situations that trigger them.
This happens so often with my kids. They take something so simple, so straight forward, and overthink it into this convoluted, complex mess that makes no sense at all. My oldest had severe math anxiety and he would do this with math problems all the time. Taking what should have been a very simple, straight forward math question and turning it into this thesis paper of complex algorithms. When all he needed to do was add 2 plus 2.
Trauma anniversary time is always a time of great anxiety and sensitivity to triggers for us. Often I notice his complete lack of focus and inability to concentrate on his work first. Then, just as I feel my own frustration mounting it hits me. It’s trauma anniversary time.
I also know when my own anxiety is high, I often struggle to concentrate and focus. Filtering out everything around me, and all the big feelings inside of me from the anxiety, makes it almost impossible to work. Trouble focusing and a lack of concentration, when normally this is not the case, is often a sign of anxiety in kids. Don’t ignore these changes in behaviour.
Difficulty Following Instructions
This relates to the previous one. When kids are struggling to focus and concentrate they may experience a lot of difficulty following directions. Sometimes I feel like I am on repeat saying the same things over and over again, but if I step back, recognize it for the anxiety that it is, and use some coping mechanisms to help my child calm his anxiety, then suddenly they will be able to follow the directions easily. I used to think my child was just being difficult or obstinate when they wouldn’t follow directions, but now I see it for what it is, a call for help. So I take a breath, calm myself, and work on strategies with my child. It always results in a successful learning session.
Lack of Patience
Put my kid in a busy, noisy place where we have to wait in line and I just know my kid is going to lose his patience about 30 seconds in. It’s part of the avoidance. He just wants to get out and get away from the place or experience that is making him feel anxious and into a place where he feels safe and can calm himself.
Aggression and Defiance
Tone. Oh my goodness do we deal with tone a LOT around here. Sometimes it is simple teen years stuff, but I know my son, and when his tone is aggressive or defiant and rude, it usually means he is struggling with anxiety. Helping him recognize that anxiety and calm it, always helps with the tone issues.
I have also seen physical aggression, lashing out, “snapping”, yelling, etc. It’s like the turmoil and storm in their little bodies just bubbles up and explodes out of them.
Insomnia & Trouble Sleeping
This is one I know personally so well. I struggle with what is know as terminal insomnia. I fall asleep no problem, but I wake up a few hours later and struggle to get back to sleep.
My son has the opposite problem when his anxiety is high. That quiet time we try and institute to help with sleep becomes a nightmare for him. All his anxiety from the day, all the experiences that triggered feelings he bottled up, all come to the surface. Sometimes even resulting in panic attacks or meltdowns.
Bedtime and quiet times in the evening can be extremely hard on kids struggling with anxiety.
Do you know about sensory seeking behaviours? This is when kids do things in order to deal with big feelings in their bodies. There can be many causes of sensory seeking behaviours, but one is anxiety. I’ve seen an inability to sit still, a compulsive need to fidget, ticks or repetitive movements, talking and noise making, bouncing their body or head into the couch or another object, and more. This topic is huge and I hope to have more resources on sensory issues for you soon.
In addition to sensory seeking behaviours, I often see sensory avoidance. You’ve probably experienced it yourself. When anxiety levels are high, noises seem louder and you don’t like being touched or bumped. Kids can have the exact same reaction to anxiety where they want to withdraw and shield themselves from sensory inputs that they are suddenly finding too overwhelming.
Nail Biting, Lip Chewing, Thumb Sucking, etc.
This once again falls under sensory seeking, but I pull it out because these particular ways of sensory seeking are so common in kids with anxiety.
Self Harm Behaviours
People often thing self harming behaviours are more of a teen year thing, but it can start at a much younger age. One of the common ones I have seen is skin picking to the point of bleeding, raw fingers or toes.
PSYCHOLOGICAL AND EDUCATIONAL SIGNS
This is a huge one, as many kids struggle with the school environment as an anxiety trigger. In our case, my son who loved learning, would meltdown on the way to school every day. The tears would start in the car and by the time we got into the school he was melting down into a massive fit. This happened every day. The teachers said it was normal and we just had to let him outgrow it. They were so wrong.
Panic Attacks or Meltdowns
I mentioned above that we had meltdowns on the way to school, but after a while the meltdowns at drop off lessened. Instead they started happening in the evening. My son had learned to bottle up all of the anxiety and big feelings throughout the day and they would erupt like Mount Vesuvius in the evenings. He also started having panic attacks. His heart would race, he couldn’t breath, his face would turn bright red, he would be sweating profusely. It was scary.
Needing Reassurance or Asking Lots of Questions
This one used to drive me batty. I have one child that would ask so many questions. They had to know everything that was going to happen, even things there was no way we could know the answers to. He needed constant reassurance about upcoming events, even if they seemed fairly routine and mundane to us.
Related to this, I’ve also had a child that would repeat questions. Asking the same question over and over again as if testing to see if the answer might change.
As much as these ones would get on my nerves, I’ve learned to take a deep breath, get to their level, make eye contact and answer their questions gently, honestly and calming for the 100th time.
Constantly Worrying and Fixation
I worked with one therapist who referred to this as “getting stuck”. It’s when a child becomes extremely fixed on one thing, often a small or minor detail, but they constantly worry and fixate on it.
This one has broken my heart a few times. Sometimes anxiety is not in your face and obvious. Sometimes those internal struggles come out in the most unexpected ways. During schoolwork the one way I often see it surfacing is memory issues. It could be an inability to remember an instruction given a few minutes earlier, or it could be bigger, where a child suddenly seems to be unable to recall a fact or skill they normally know perfectly. For instance, I have seen this a lot in math, where a child has done the same type of math problems perfectly for ages, then suddenly they can’t recall how to even take the first step in solving a simple problem.
With little ones I see this as delays getting out the door, taking forever to get the boots and coat on. Or with older kids they may leave assignments or projects until the last minute. Procrastination due to anxiety is often due to the fact that they need to go through the process of questioning, thinking, worrying, etc. before they get started. The problem is that this often adds to their anxiety.
The overthinking is a big problem with anxiety. Perhaps in a social situation the child will think about what someone said and spend a great deal of time analyzing it and trying to find hidden meanings. Or it could with be schoolwork, instead of going with the straightforward, simple approach, they overthink it into this complex, time consuming problem.
WHEN TO TAKE ACTION
SOMETIMES ANXIETY IS NORMAL, HOW TO KNOW WHEN YOU NEED TO INTERVENE
If you have ever read up on anxiety, you realize that anxiety is a natural and instinctual coping mechanism. It helps us survive in unsafe situations. It’s when your body thinks a kitten is a lion, and it does that consistently, that we need to seek help.
However, when it comes to kids, I think any child struggling with anxiety should have a competent, calm adult help coach them through the situation. Children are still learning coping skills, often they are experiencing these big feelings for the first time. It is no wonder many become overwhelmed. Having a trusted adult be there with them, and support them, while teaching them skills they can use throughout their lives to cope with anxiety is important.
Sometimes just sitting and breathing with an anxious child can have a profound impact.
But when the anxiety becomes constant, when you see it affecting their ability to participate in regular activities, that is when I believe you should seek out professional help. Seeing your doctor is a great first step.
How to help children with anxiety
For this article I mainly wanted to focus on the signs of anxiety in kids, but I also don’t want to leave you without any resources for next steps. Here are a few books I have used and found helpful over the years. I also highly recommend therapy if their anxiety is affecting their ability to function and participate in life. With the help of a professional you can get fresh eyes and ideas to hopefully help your child learn effective coping skills. I don’t recommend waiting too long with kids when it comes to therapy. I’ve learn how fast the time flies by and soon you are dealing with puberty on top of anxiety. So consider therapy and being proactive as soon as you signs that anxiety has become a concern.