Most of us as adults, are familiar with anxiety. We know the stress of work, paying bills, managing responsibilities, and trying to stay afloat in what feels like a never-ending pandemic. As grown ups, we know the experience of fear, what worries keeping us awake at night looks like, and the toll that anxiety can take on our physical bodies.
But what about children? What does anxiety look like for them? And would we know it if we saw it?
The Many Faces of Childhood Anxiety
Below are a variety of ways that anxiety can present itself in children. Remembering that children may not have the cognitive, verbal, or emotional skills to navigate the complex experiences they have and as a result, their anxiety and stress may present in ways we don’t always expect.
Worries: A classic symptom of anxiety and likely the easiest to identity! Worries are thoughts that can be distressing and can be expressed by statements, questions, or in conversation. Try to avoid statements like “don’t worry about it” and instead validate and empathize with what they are thinking and feeling.
Over-planning: The need to know exactly what is happening, what is going to happen, when it will happen, how it will happen, who will be there, for how long, and why. Children may feel anxious in anticipation of situations or events and as a result feel compelled to know every detail, ask repeated questions (even ones that have answered), and what to exactly how things are going to look.
Intolerance of Uncertainty: Part of the reason that children may want to over-plan is because they are not tolerating the uncertainty of not knowing things. The unknowns can feel scary and without understanding the expectations of them or how things are going to unfold, anxiety can creep in.
Avoidance: The most common way to manage anxiety is to avoid the things that make us anxious. Makes sense right? No one wants to go places, do things, be in situations or around people that make us feels scared, nervous, anxious, or uneasy. You might notice your child not wanting to go to school, to bed, somewhere new, with new people, etc., when they are feeling anxious. But avoidance, while the most common, and a basic, biological survival mechanism, is generally not helpful, and often causes more problems in the long run.
Physical Symptoms: What does your child say when they don’t want to go somewhere or do something? “I don’t feel good”. Stomachaches, headaches, difficulty breathing, chest tightness, racing heart, and other physical symptoms often are a part of anxiety. These symptoms, while psychological are very real and feel no different than symptoms caused by physical illness.
Sleep Difficulties: Just like us, anxiety can keep little people up at night too. Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or early morning waking and overall lack of rest can be sign of anxiety. Healthy sleep habits, routines, and clear expectations can help with this!
Emotional Dysregulation: Crying, anger, outbursts, meltdowns, sadness, or roller coaster emotions can all be tied to anxiety and worries. If a child’s brain is flooded with worries and their bodies are overwhelmed by physical symptoms of stress, they ability to regulate their emotions will decrease. Helping them regulate their breathing, reconnect to their surroundings, and settle their systems down is a great place to start before trying to regulate their emotions.
Difficulties with Attention: Like adults, when children feel stressed or anxious, it can pull their attention away from the tasks at hand. Seeming distracted, unable to concentrate, difficulties completing work, can be part of anxiety. Before telling them to “focus” or “pay attention” try looking at the source of the distraction in terms of what’s going around and inside of them.
Desire for Control: A need for controlling things, events, and even others, down to every detail, what others say, do, and even believe, can be frustrating but it may not necessarily be behavioural. Attempting to find ways to control, understand, and predict things in a way that fits within their beliefs and allows them to feel calmer and in control, can be linked to anxiety.
Defiance/Refusal: Common behaviours maybe, but they may not always be part to acting out. Defiance or refusal to engage in certain things, go certain places, or be with certain people, may not be out of preference, but might be rooted in a avoidance to help manage the symptoms associated with anxiety. Next time your child is refusing something, before reacting, consider responding. Explore what’s underneath those behaviours, how your child is feeling, what they are thinking, and what’s happening inside their body. This might help you sort out the real reasons behind those tough behaviours.
Written by registered psychologist with Wildflowers, Megan Adams Lebell.