Mom, I’m feeling anxious about reading out loud in class today.
– said almost no kid, ever.
This is the sneaky thing about child anxiety. Kids often can’t say what’s going on. The emotions can be confusing to them. They really need to be taught how to recognize and describe anxiety. Because anxiety is often an internal problem, it can be tough as a parent to spot it in your child. Read on to learn how you can recognize the three main anxiety symptoms in children.
Anxiety can show up in different ways, but it always has three parts: feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Let’s take a closer look at the types of symptoms and signs of anxiety for each of these parts.
How to spot the physical, cognitive, and behavioral anxiety symptoms in children:
- Physical symptoms of child anxiety.
- Symptoms of anxious thinking (cognitive symptoms of child anxiety).
- Behavioral symptoms of child anxiety.
- Where do anxious feelings, thoughts, and behaviors get in the way the most?
- Keeping these symptoms in mind, what activities can be tough for kids with anxiety?
- When child anxiety becomes a problem.
Physical symptoms of child anxiety.
Anxiety can cause a variety of physical symptoms. Of course, it’s best to rule-out any medical reasons for your child’s symptoms with an exam by your child’s pediatrician. Headaches and stomachaches are two common physical reactions to anxiety. Anything else that happens to your body when it goes into survival mode, can be a sign of anxiety too. For kids, this might be a racing or pounding heart, sweating, shakiness, butterflies in the tummy, feeling hot or cold, and/or flushed cheeks. Notice when you see these physical symptoms. If there is a pattern to when they show up, like around a specific activity or situation, they might be a clue to an anxiety problem.
Symptoms of anxious thinking (cognitive symptoms of child anxiety).
Knowing if your child is struggling with anxious thoughts can be a bit tricky. Some signs of anxious thinking are what your child says or does in response to their thoughts. Typically, kids will ask questions about what they’re thinking. This may come out in a lot of “what-if?” type questions. For example:
What if I mess up?
What if the other kids laugh at me?
Anxious thinking could also appear as needing reassurance from grown-ups. Generally, reassurance is the need to have questions answered to create a sense of certainty. Kids might ask questions about where you’ll be, who you’ll be with, when you’ll be home, and what you’ll be doing. They would likely keep asking, even after you’ve told them the answer already.
Behavioral symptoms of child anxiety.
Behaviors that are caused by anxiety might be easier for parents to recognize. The biggest clue that anxiety might be playing a role is if a child is avoiding something, especially something new or something they previously did without a problem. On the other hand, kids may refuse to do things for other reasons. Maybe they just don’t want to, or they want to do something their own way or on their own time. It’s important to remember that kids have their own preferences and wishes. Other behaviors that might be symptoms of anxiety are trouble falling asleep, nightmares or night-wakings, being easily distracted, or having a tantrum or a meltdown.
Where do anxious feelings, thoughts, and behaviors get in the way the most?
Anxiety tends to show up in the things that are most important for kids’ development: socializing, learning, sleeping, and eating. Specific examples of situations further below.
Anxious kids can have trouble making friends or being with friends. They can worry about what to say, how to say or do something, or what other kids think of them.
Anxiety can affect learning at school. It can cause kids to be distracted or to procrastinate. Academic demands and social situations at school can be tough for kids with anxiety. There are many opportunities for judgment at school that can cause an increase in anxiety.
Like with adults, sleep problems come for children with anxiety. They may have trouble going to sleep or trouble sleeping alone. Bedtime and sleep for anxious kids often looks different than that of their peers. Sleep affects kids’ growth, ability to concentrate, and their emotions.
Anxiety can also show up at mealtimes. Anxious kids might be picky eaters who worry about how food tastes or it’s texture. They can have fears about eating new things or different foods that touch the same plate or fork. Or they can even worry about choking or eating contaminated food.
Keeping these symptoms in mind, what activities can be tough for kids with anxiety?
Aside from knowing symptoms of anxiety in children and where they often show up, it’s helpful to know some specific situations can be hard. Keep in mind, this is not an exhaustive list, just situations that are commonly tough for anxious kids.
Children with anxiety might have trouble in new situations. The first day(s) of a new school year, meeting a new teacher and classmates, starting a new sports team, or having a new babysitter can all trigger anxiety.
Transitions and changes in routine can also be hard for anxious kids. Structure brings a sense of certainty and security and when something that was expected or predictable changes, it can cause anxious feelings.
Any kind of performance situation, like sports or music, can cause worries and make it hard for kids to participate in and enjoy fun activities. Similarly, children who are socially anxious might be resistant to going to a school dance, a party, or on a date.
Going to a restaurant or eating away from home might be hard for kids prone to anxiety. They may have trouble ordering what they want to eat, worry about eating or talking in front of others, or have trouble trying different foods.
Going to bed is also a common challenging time for children who are anxious. They might be afraid of the dark, worry about their safety or their parents’ safety, or anxious thoughts might make it tough to fall asleep.
Lastly, school-related tasks, especially homework, might be affected by anxiety too. Kids can worry about grades, fear what others think of their work, or feel they must be perfect. They might have trouble getting started on homework or have trouble finishing homework due to these worries.
When child anxiety becomes a problem.
Anxiety becomes a problem when it gets in the way of what kids need and want to do. And it can cause a lot of stress for the whole family. Dealing with kids’ tough behaviors can be frustrating. Parents can even feel defeated, dealing with the same difficult situation over and over. Want the good news though? There are many strategies that can help parents and kids build confidence and resilience to overcome anxiety. It’s possible to help kids get back to what they need and want to do.
For more help with specific strategies and more info about the main three anxiety symptoms in children, check out my free guide to the 3 Coping Skills Every Kid Needs.