Anxiety is defined by Merriam Webster as a feeling of unease or nervousness that often goes along with an upcoming event or something with an uncertain outcome. This feeling typically will come with physical signs such as increased heart rate or muscle tension.
It is normal for children to have occasional feelings of anxiety when faced with something new, or if they must confront their fears. Just like adults, kids experience periods of sadness, nervousness, and hopelessness during childhood. As parents, we can support our kids while they have these episodes, and give them tools to work through them.
Many parents question the difference between anxiety in children due to typical developmental challenges, versus serious levels of anxiety that become cause for professional help.
For example, it is common for babies seven to nine months old to have anxiety about strangers. It is common for preschool age kids to be afraid of the dark, monsters and insects. School age kids often have anxious feelings about school and friends.
These feelings are expected for kids, and they are all a part of learning to manage the world around them. When these fears begin to interrupt their ability to learn, interact with peers, sleep at night, or function normally in daily life, it might be a sign that your child is dealing with an anxiety disorder.
“We sought professional help when anxiety caused self-harm or destructive behaviors,” notes Courtney DeBok, a mom of six. “Continued talks about what’s causing the anxiety help, but sometimes the child can’t identify what they are anxious about. This is also another reason it’s helpful to include a professional.”
Anxiety can appear at any age, but children experience these feelings much differently than adults. True anxiety can cause anger and aggression, bedwetting, changes in appetite, insomnia, fatigue, trouble focusing, irritability, muscle tension, nervous habits such as nail biting, restlessness, headaches, or stomach aches in children.
Anxious feelings can cause children to refuse to go to school or other activities or make them want to avoid situations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “7.1 percent of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety.” If your child is struggling with anxiety, the statistics show they are not alone.
Feelings of anxiousness protect us from dangerous situations and warn us when to avoid things that may put us at risk; this is the positive side of anxiety. However, an anxiety disorder can be debilitating and cause us to make decisions that are no longer protecting us.
Anxiety in children can be difficult to identify because it can appear to be a child acting out or behaving strangely rather than an underlying concern. For example, if your child is having anxiety about school, they may refuse to go, they may complain about a stomach ache and ask to see the nurse to get out of class, or they may act out and distract their peers.
If you feel that your child’s behavior is stemming from their anxiousness about a situation, try to understand where the problem stems from. “We ask questions that get them to discover the root of the worry themselves,” says a mom of three. She suggests using questions like, “What are you most afraid of happening in this situation?” This will help kids determine the root of the problem. “If they don’t know what scares them, we walk through a possible scenario of the whole event and stop when they get to the scary part so we can further discuss it.”
Darcy King, mom of two says, “We use a lot of grounding techniques. For example, name five things you see, five things you hear, five things you feel. We also use deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation videos that can be found on Youtube.”
Olathe mom of three, Amy Cameron says “I finally asked my kids if they felt like talking to a therapist, and I was surprised how well they were able to articulate what they were going through. It helped a lot.”
No one will argue that anxious feelings are normal on occasion for both kids and adults. When these feelings interfere with school work, activities, relationships, and family life, or if they become unmanageable, it may be time to seek professional help.
If your child is threatening to hurt themselves or others, or if their behavior feels scary or out of control, seek out a professional immediately.
A therapist will likely be able to give you and your child tools to manage the anxiety in a healthy way, identify the root of the problem, determine symptoms and triggers, and prescribe medication if needed. This will help anxiety become manageable and leave your child feeling healthier and happier.
Sarah Lyons is a mom of six children, including seven year old triplets. She lives in Kansas City with her family.