Any adult who has ever experienced the discomfort of anxiety or a panic attack understands how intense and scary the experience can be. Now imagine taking that sensation of anxiety, and squeezing it into the body of a child. For children, the experience of anxiety can be very difficult to describe as they themselves often do not understand what is happening. Anxiety can present itself in children in more unique ways than it does in adults which can make it more difficult for adults to recognize it for what it is. They may develop an odd behavior such as hair twirling, sucking on their shirt, or pulling out their eyelashes. They may suddenly develop a lot of reoccurring stomachaches, headaches, or nausea. Sometimes we just think they are being “silly”, “ridiculous”, or “dramatic,” when in fact they may actually be experiencing anxiety. As a parent, it can be really tough to recognize what these behaviors are. Sometimes, even as a therapist it takes a while to sort out the meaning of a child’s behavior.
Children may experience symptoms of anxiety similar to adults, such as feeling nervous, experiencing worrisome thoughts that cannot be controlled, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, and difficulty sleeping. In children you may also notice a drop in grades or sudden school refusal. Children may become increasingly avoidant, shy, or withdrawn as a result of anxiety. They may also do the opposite and “act out” through temper tantrums or oppositional behaviors. Children may become unreasonably upset about plans changing or may need frequent reassurance about what the days plans are going to be. As with adults, some anxiety in children is normal, but if it is persistent or becomes problematic, interferring with their relationships or education, it may need more attention.
So what should you do if you think your child is dealing with anxiety? Every situation requires something different, but here are a few good places to start.
- Validate that what your child is feeling is real, even if the thoughts are not rationale.
- Help them identify calming strategies that work for them, such as taking deep breaths, taking a bath, reading a book, getting outside, or doing something active.
- Listen to your child and ask questions to help them, and you, better understand their fears.
- Work with their school, if necessary, to create a calm down plan if they get anxious during the school day.
- Keeping your own fears and anxiety in check is important for your child as well. They will sense your energy.
- Simplify their life if they are feeling overwhelmed.