We’ve all experienced some level of anxiety in our lives. And to a certain extent, those feelings are healthy: anxiety can help us to recognize and avoid danger, or push us forward when an important task needs to be completed.
It’s when those feelings of anxiety begin to disrupt our daily routines that they become a problem — and a potentially crippling one for those who struggle with it, at that. Although anxiety may seem like a complex emotion reserved for adults and the stresses and pressures that come with age, a surprising number of kids have to deal with these diagnosable disorders.
Unfortunately, though, these disorders can be remarkably hard for a parent even to recognize in their children, children don’t often verbalize these complex feelings, and their behavioral symptoms are easy to pass off as ‘just a phase’. So, to help us recognize what anxiety looks like in children, we turned to three children’s mental health experts to identify the sneakiest signs that a kid might be struggling with an anxiety disorder. And if these 6 symptoms sound all too familiar, Your next move is to consult a mental health professional.
They ask a lot of questions about the future.
Kids with anxiety often worry about what’s going to happen and if they’re going to be okay. While they may not be able to truly verbalize these fears, they may frequently try to ease their minds by coming to you with questions about the future.
‘Children often include their parents in their anxiety by asking for and seeking out reassurance,’ says Dr Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist in the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center at the US Child Mind Institute. Read: If your child is beginning to ask a wealth of questions that begin with the words ‘what if’, take note.
They’ve started eating a lot more or a lot less.
Abnormal behavioral symptoms of any sickness are often the ones that parents notice first, and behavioral symptoms of anxiety are no exception, says Dr Aarti Gupta, a family psychologist and the clinical director of Therapy Nestin Los Altos, California. Just like when she’s battling an illness that makes her stomach upset, your child may push away food (or even eat more of it than usual) when she’s feeling anxious.
They’re often irritable and throw over-the-top temper tantrums.
Dr Debra Kissen, the clinical director of the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center in Chicago, says that children will often seem irritable and aggressive as they attempt to process the complex emotions that come with an anxiety disorder. She also says children with anxiety may exhibit a ‘low frustration tolerance’ — meaning their reactions will seem disproportionate to the severity of the situations they’re dealing with, and their temper tantrums may seem over-the-top.
They suffer from frequent headaches and tummy aches.
Although these physical symptoms might not seem directly connected to the mental health problem that is anxiety, all three of our experts point to frequent headaches and stomach aches as common signs of the disorder. These physical reactions are the direct result of your child’s body responding (in ‘fight or flight’ fashion) to the danger they perceive, Dr Domingues says.
They often choose to sit out on kids’ activities.
Whether it’s going over to a friend’s house for a sleepover or participating in a neighborhood game of football, typical children’s social activities may sound more frightening than fun for a kid struggling with anxiety. ‘The number one behavioral symptom that parents want to be mindful of is avoidance — one of the things that kids learn to do when they are anxious is to avoid the things that worry them,’ Dr Domingues says.
They have trouble focusing — and it shows in their grades.
An inability to concentrate (and the resulting poor performance in school) is often attributed to another mental disorder: ADHD. But Dr Gupta says it can be a sign of anxiety as well. And it makes sense: a child who is incessantly worried about making a mistake — or even what might happen to his parents while he’s away at school — will have trouble focusing on pretty much anything.