My daughter was 4 years old and going to preschool at the local elementary school. We were there for family fun night to celebrate a unit they had just completed. There were two small classrooms involved, tons of people, lots of chaos, and it was loud and hot. My 4 year old was standing in line to complete an activity, and when she finished she said, “I’m ready to leave.”
This experience was frustrating for me (after all the time and energy it took to pack up the whole family, feed everyone before we left, pack the stroller and diaper bag, etc.), but I was also relieved because in that instant she was telling me what she needed. This situation was too much for her and I could tell we were getting close to a meltdown.
Whether it’s my younger daughter feeling distress in social situations like the one I just described, or my older daughter who complains of stomach aches and can’t eat before big events such as the first day of school, exciting performances, sleepovers or doctor’s appointments, anxiety symptoms in children can be mystifying, scary and sometimes downright confusing for parents and kids!
A certain level of anxiety and fear is healthy and typical. It is our body’s natural way of detecting danger and responding by fight or flight.
In some people the anxiety response is in overdrive, meaning their body and mind tell them there is a high level of danger in low risk situations. This can present in many different ways.
Typical Anxiety Symptoms in Children
Often kids worry about a variety of things such as school, friends, health, health of parents, or worrying that something bad will happen. Sometimes kids and teens worry about one thing in particular such as spiders or riding in cars. Older children and teens may worry about what other people think of them, getting perfect grades, or not wanting to look “dumb” in front of others.
Parents may notice that kids/teens are restless, irritable, having outbursts, are quiet and reserved, blushing, fidgeting, headaches, stomach aches, or have tension. Kids may cling to parents or be very cautious in certain situations. Children and teens may avoid certain situations so they can relieve their feelings of worry.
Problematic Anxiety Symptoms in Children
Anxiety and the symptoms described above are typical. This is common and happens as children are growing and learning about themselves and the world. Anxiety becomes problematic when a child is not willing or able to participate in activities or function in situations that are developmentally appropriate. It is problematic when a child is having panic attacks, struggling to breathe or calm down, passing out, throwing up, hiding, or other intense unhealthy behaviors.
How to Help Your Child who is Struggling with Anxiety
Parents can play a role in helping children through these feelings by being encouraging and supportive. This does not mean you let them avoid situations that cause them anxiety; it’s more about offering your child tips and tools they can try, letting them dive in slowly, and setting them up for success so they can feel safer and confident in otherwise scary situations.
Another tool could be helping your child identify the feeling they are noticing, and then validating that feeling for them. It shows that you heard them and you understand them (even if you don’t necessarily agree!).
If you think your child needs help but you aren’t sure what to do or how to help, reach out to your doctor, school counselor or a professional counselor for assessment and guidance. Anxiety is a common, yet uncomfortable feeling; especially when it feels out of control. Hopefully by offering support when they are young we can teach new ways of coping for when they are older.
*Special thanks to Megan Rose, LMHC, of Murray, Wilson, and Rose Counseling and Behavioral Services LLC for sharing these tips with us!! Our partners at Murray, Wilson, and Rose Counseling and Behavioral Services LLC offer personalized individual, family, couples, and group counseling specific to your needs. Whether you or a family member is suffering from anxiety and depression or more severe issues such as substance abuse, low self-esteem or chronic mental illness, their trained and caring counselors are available to help. They also offer maternal mental health services including a Pregnancy and Postpartum Adjustment group, as well as a Pregnancy Loss Support Group and Stillbirth/Infant Loss Support Group.