Perspective | What does childhood anxiety look like? Probably not what you think. (2023)

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A 7-year-old is the perfect student but destroys his bedroom and screams at his siblings after school. A 10-year-old snaps at her mother constantly, criticizing just about everything she does. An 8-year-old cries every morning before school and clings to his parents each time they attempt to drop him off at school, sports events or birthday parties. A 12-year-old experiences headaches that make it difficult to get out the door on time. A 6-year-old can’t fall asleep at night. Though all of these behaviors appear unrelated and present different challenges, they have one common thread: anxiety.

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Anxiety disorders are on the rise among children, and anxiety tends to spike during the school year. A study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics estimates that approximately 2 million American children and adolescents have a diagnosable anxiety disorder.

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One of the difficult parts of getting help for children suffering from anxiety is that anxiety often presents as a constellation of negative behaviors. Parents and educators are quick to spot the behavior problem, but they don’t always see the underlying anxiety that drives it. “We tend to think of anxious children as these delicate little butterflies, but when kids are scared, they can be ferocious about trying to escape or avoid anxiety-provoking situations,” explains Eileen Kennedy-Moore, child psychologist and author of “Kid Confidence.”

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The challenge often lies in the fact that kids might experience these emotions for the first time, without warning. They don’t necessarily know how to connect the dots between a racing heart, a stomach ache, feeling dizzy and anxiety.

“Children today are stressed on so many fronts: challenged socially, academically, having to cope with physical changes and development, the demands and influence of social media, trying to fit in and be accepted. It’s no wonder they show evidence of anxiety,” says Susan Newman, psychologist and author of “The Book of No.” “Parents should ask questions about anything they notice or want to understand to show their interest and love for their child. Children want to be heard and listened to, even if they tell you to stop being nosy.”

The good news in all of this is that child anxiety is very treatable, especially with early intervention. In learning to spot the sneaky signs of child anxiety, identify triggers of anxiety and teach kids coping skills, parents and educators can empower kids to manage their anxious feelings independently and thrive in social and academic settings.

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What does child anxiety look like?

The word “anxiety” may conjure images of a quiet worrier, but childhood anxiety wears many different masks. More often than not, symptoms of child anxiety fall into the following categories:

  • Psychosomatic complaints: Kids don’t usually come home from school saying, “I felt really anxious at school today,” but they do say things like, “I have a terrible stomachache; I can’t go back to school tomorrow.” Frequent stomachaches, headaches and unexplained muscle aches and pains can all be symptoms of anxiety. It’s also important to watch for complaints of chest pain, racing heart, difficulty breathing, dizziness and difficulty swallowing. These can all be symptomatic of a panic attack.
  • Anger and irritability: Most kids have meltdowns at times when they feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Frequent meltdowns that are lengthy and fueled by anger and irritability, on the other hand, are worth taking a second look. Child anxiety often looks like intense anger and a complete lack of emotional regulation.
  • Sadness: Anxious kids can appear clingy, overwhelmed and sad. They are likely to burst into tears without explanation.
  • Isolation and avoidance: Anxious children often engage in social isolation. They avoid additional social interaction beyond school, choosing the safety and comfort of home to recover. They are also master procrastinators and tend to avoid challenges.
  • Fatigue: Coping with anxiety can be exhausting. Chronic fatigue in a previously active child can be a sign of anxiety.
  • Poor concentration: Anxiety can make it difficult to focus.
  • School refusal: School can feel like an exercise in survival for kids with anxiety, and school refusal is often the first red flag parents and educators notice.
  • Frequent questions: Anxious kids tend to be concerned with personal safety and the safety of family and friends. They ask the same questions repeatedly and seek validation from adults often.

Common triggers

Kids will respond differently to various triggers and events. To that end, it’s important to understand your child’s baseline. Most kids experience some anxiety at times.

Anxiety becomes problematic when it interferes with a child’s daily functioning. If anxiety makes it difficult for your child to get to school each day, focus, socialize and function within the family, it might be an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety often has a genetic component, but it can also be triggered by a number of factors.

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  • Genetics: Just like your child can inherit your eyes or your complexion, anxiety can also be transmitted from parent to child.
  • Academic/achievement pressure: Sometimes pressure is self-prescribed; sometimes kids feel pressured by the adults in their lives.
  • Learned anxiety: Children can learn anxious responses from the people in their homes. A perfectionist parent, for example, might unintentionally send the message that everything needs to be perfect.
  • Bullying/social issues: Kids who experience chronic bullying can develop symptoms of anxiety. This includes cyberbullying, which is reaching younger and younger children. Kids who struggle with social anxiety can be triggered by large and unfamiliar social situations.
  • Transitions: New homes, new schools and even new teachers can trigger an anxious child.
  • Loss: Divorce, death of a loved one or death of a pet can result in symptoms of anxiety.
  • Violence or abuse:Kids who experience child abuse or witness domestic violence or other acts of violence in the home can experience anxiety disorders.

How to help kids cope

When children experience symptoms of anxiety that interfere with their daily life (symptoms occur more often than not during at least a two-week period), it’s important to seek professional help. A pediatrician is a good first stop to rule out or diagnose possible medical issues and to refer a licensed mental health practitioner who specializes in working with children. Cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy can be very effective treatment options for children with anxiety.

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There are also strategies that can be implemented at home and in school to help children manage and cope with their anxious thought patterns:

  • Mindful/deep breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and relaxing muscle groups to release tension)
  • Acknowledging the anxious thought and countering it with a positive one
  • Using a worry box to put worries away for later
  • “Roses and thorns” journal to get worries out and identify positives
  • The basics: healthy eating and sleep habits, plenty of water, and time for free play and exercise

Childhood anxiety can feel all-consuming, but it can be managed, and managed in a way that helps children build resilience. When kids learn how to spot their own symptoms and cope with them independently, they take control.

Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator, and the author of the new book “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls.” You can find her onTwitterandon her blog,Practical Parenting.

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FAQs

What does childhood anxiety look like probably not what you think? ›

Common outward signs that a child might be anxious include troubling sleeping, lots of stomachaches or headaches, clinging to parents, and throwing tantrums. Some of these symptoms may look like oppositional behavior, but really the child is struggling to deal with overwhelming worry.

How do you explain what anxiety feels like to a child? ›

#1 What is anxiety?
  1. Anxiety can be a thought (mental) or feeling (physical) that can feel very scary.
  2. Anxiety is actually not dangerous and can sometimes be helpful in certain situations.
  3. Everybody experiences anxious feelings sometimes, it is a normal.
14 Dec 2020

What are the main causes of childhood anxiety? ›

Things that happen in a child's life can be stressful and difficult to cope with. Loss, serious illness, death of a loved one, violence, or abuse can lead some kids to become anxious. Learned behaviors. Growing up in a family where others are fearful or anxious also can "teach" a child to be afraid too.

How does childhood anxiety affect you? ›

Experiencing childhood trauma can predispose people to developing anxiety and panic symptoms and disorders in several ways. These are related to unpredictable childhood environments, changes in how one perceives physical sensations, and changes in brain structure and function.

What is Freud's view of anxiety? ›

Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud viewed anxiety as the symptomatic expression of the inner emotional conflict caused when a person suppresses (from conscious awareness) experiences, feelings, or impulses that are too threatening or disturbing to live with.

What does anxiety look like in everyday life? ›

Here are some examples of everyday anxiety that is commonly experienced by most people. Worrying about paying bills, finding a job and other important life events. Experiencing nervousness before a big presentation, performance or important event.

How do you explain what anxiety feels like to someone who doesn't have it? ›

What Anxiety Feels Like
  1. It feels like you're trapped in a loop. ...
  2. You feel overwhelmed and want to run away from everything. ...
  3. When under mental distress, it's difficult to think straight and make rational decisions. ...
  4. Feels like you have no control over your anxiety. ...
  5. Can feel like everyone is staring and judging you.
16 Apr 2021

What is the best way to describe anxiety? ›

There are many different types of anxiety disorders, each with its own symptoms and treatment options. But in general, people with anxiety disorders tend to experience excessive fear, worry, and stress. They may also have physical symptoms such as a racing heart, sweating, and difficulty breathing.

What does anxious behavior look like? ›

Common anxiety signs and symptoms include: Feeling nervous, restless or tense. Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom. Having an increased heart rate.

What is the most common anxiety disorder of childhood? ›

Separation anxiety is the most common anxiety disorder in children younger than 12.

Can you grow out of childhood anxiety? ›

Fortunately, most children diagnosed with anxiety disorders will outgrow them, provided they live in supportive environments and get appropriate treatment.

How common is childhood anxiety? ›

By 2020, 5.6 million kids (9.2%) had been diagnosed with anxiety problems and 2.4 million (4.0%) had been diagnosed with depression.

Can a stressful childhood cause anxiety? ›

There is evidence that childhood trauma plays a substantial role in the later occurrence of psychopathology in adolescence or adulthood, including anxiety and depression [6,32,33,34,35]. Previous research indicates that chronic pain and anxiety can share common risk factors [36].

How does anxiety affect a child's social life? ›

Their anxiety could make them feel isolated or estranged from other children. This could adversely affect their social life, which could further dampen their education. Anxiety can make children engage less in their education and learning (not wanting to answer a teacher or speak in front of others).

What perspective is anxiety? ›

Cognitive Perspective

The unpredictability which may be associated with a task may cause anxiety (Seligman, 1975). The inability or perceived inability to make an adaptive response to a threatening event or the fact or perception that no such response is available will lead to feelings of anxiety.

What are the 3 different kind of anxiety according to Freud? ›

Freud identified there are three types of anxiety : realistic, neurotic and moral anxiety.

How does the psychodynamic perspective explain anxiety? ›

From a psychodynamic perspective, panic symptoms are indicative of specific, intense unconscious conflicts that serve an important psychological purpose, the understanding of which forms the cornerstone of psychodynamically based treatments for panic.

What life is like living with anxiety? ›

Anxiety can be debilitating, especially when it triggers panic attacks. Individuals dealing with anxiety may live in fear of daily activities and feel as if their anxiety dominates their lives. In some cases, people may use substances such as drugs or alcohol to self-medicate their anxiety symptoms.

What untreated anxiety looks like? ›

People with untreated anxiety can have problems in their relationships. They may feel misunderstood or become irritable. Some people find it difficult to maintain relationships and are often worried about the relationship, causing further strain. Social isolation can also be a result of untreated anxiety.

What everyday things cause anxiety? ›

Common triggers include:
  • work stress or job change.
  • change in living arrangements.
  • pregnancy and giving birth.
  • family and relationship problems.
  • major emotional shock following a stressful or traumatic event.
  • verbal, sexual, physical or emotional abuse or trauma.
  • death or loss of a loved one.

What should you not tell people about anxiety? ›

Here are a few things not to say to someone with anxiety—and what TO say instead.
  • “Calm down.” ...
  • “It's not a big deal.” ...
  • “Why are you so anxious?” ...
  • “I know how you feel.” ...
  • “Stop worrying.” ...
  • “Just breathe.” ...
  • “Have you tried [fill in the blank]?” ...
  • “It's all in your head.”

Can you have anxiety without thinking about anything? ›

Not Worried About Anything in Particular? You Could Still Have 'Subconscious' Anxiety. Living with anxiety doesn't always mean fixating on specific fears. Many people with generalized anxiety disorder do notice their thoughts center on current sources of distress or worry.

Can anxiety make you feel like you don't exist? ›

Called depersonalization (feeling like your self is unreal) or derealization (feeling like the world is unreal), it can be a jarring, unsettling experience. And it not unusual for people who are struggling with severe anxiety and panic attacks.

How do most people describe anxiety? ›

feeling tense, nervous or unable to relax. having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst. feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down. feeling like other people can see you're anxious and are looking at you.

What is anxiety in your own words? ›

Anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid – particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future. Anxiety is a natural human response when we feel that we are under threat. It can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.

What is anxiety * Your answer? ›

What is anxiety? Anxiety is the body's physical response to a threat or perceived threat. It causes a pounding heart, rapid breathing, butterflies in the stomach and a burst of energy as well as mental responses such as excessive fears, worries or obsessive thinking. Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time.

How does anxiety affect a person's behavior? ›

Anxiety can also affect your behaviour. You may withdraw from friends and family, feel unable to go to work, or avoid certain places. While avoiding situations can give you short-term relief, the anxiety often returns the next time you're in the situation.

Can anxiety cause personality changes? ›

A person may experience a change in their demeanor after experiencing a traumatic situation or witnesses an unpleasant event. These behavioral changes may be caused by a mental health condition, such as: Anxiety: Anxiety occurs when a person feels nervous or uneasy about a situation.

Which treatment for childhood anxiety has the most support? ›

A kind of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the first choice. And for kids with severe anxiety, the recommendation is CBT combined with medication. CBT is based on the idea that how we think and act both affect how we feel. By changing our thinking or behavior, we can change our emotions.

Can yelling at a child cause anxiety? ›

Short-term effects are that children feel bad, they eventually learn to tune us out and as they model our behaviour of yelling, they in turn yell too and can show increased aggression. According to this study shared by BetterHelp, the long-term psychological effects of yelling at a child include: Increased Anxiety.

Who is most commonly affected by anxiety? ›

Anxiety disorders affect nearly 1 in 5 adults in the United States. Women are more than twice as likely as men to get an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Anxiety disorders are often treated with counseling, medicine, or a combination of both. Some women also find that yoga or meditation helps with anxiety disorders.

What happens if childhood anxiety is left untreated? ›

Substantial research links untreated childhood anxiety with mental illness in adulthood, including not only ongoing anxiety but also depression and substance abuse. She adds that anxiety is the most common mental health problem in children and adults and the median age of onset is 11.

How long does childhood anxiety last? ›

From the age of around 6 months to 3 years it's very common for young children to have separation anxiety. They may become clingy and cry when separated from their parents or carers. This is a normal stage in a child's development and should stop at around age 2 to 3.

Can a parent cause anxiety in a child? ›

Overcontrolling parents may increase levels of worry and social anxiety in children as this parental behavior may communicate to youths that they do not have the skills to successfully navigate challenges in their environment, generally or in social situations, thereby causing the child to worry about his/her abilities ...

How do you treat anxiety in children naturally? ›

Additionally, several effective natural remedies for anxiety are: changes in diet (anti-inflammatory), exercise, improving sleep, homeopathy, supplements, and working with a naturopathic physician to look at nutrient deficiencies and genetic issues, as well as irritants to the system.

Can childhood trauma cause overthinking? ›

This means you live with constant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as edginess and mood swings. Child sexual abuse often also leads to borderline personality disorder, which causes incessant overthinking about what others think about you and if they will abandon you.

What age is most likely to develop anxiety? ›

- Women are 3x more likely to be affected than men. - The average age of onset is 19, with 25% of cases occurring by age 14. One-third of affected adults first experienced symptoms in childhood.

What are 3 major causes of stress in children? ›

Stressors may include:
  • Worrying about schoolwork or grades.
  • Juggling responsibilities, such as school and work or sports.
  • Problems with friends, bullying, or peer group pressures.
  • Changing schools, moving, or dealing with housing problems or homelessness.
  • Having negative thoughts about themselves.
7 Jun 2022

What does childhood anxiety look like? ›

Anxiety may present as fear or worry, but can also make children irritable and angry. Anxiety symptoms can also include trouble sleeping, as well as physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, or stomachaches. Some anxious children keep their worries to themselves and, thus, the symptoms can be missed.

What Causes child anxiety? ›

Some children are simply born more anxious and less able to cope with stress than others. Children can also pick up anxious behaviour from being around anxious people. Some children develop anxiety after stressful events, such as: frequently moving house or school.

Can parents cause social anxiety? ›

Verbal transmission of fear and threat from parents to children has been implicated in development of social anxiety. Negative parental verbal threats have been shown to lead to cognitive bias in ambiguous situations, hypervigilance to threats, and avoidance behaviors (Murray et al., 2014; Remmerswaal et al., 2016).

What Can anxiety be mistaken for? ›

Conditions That Look Like Anxiety
  • Heart Problems. 1/15. These can spike your heart and breathing rates the same way anxiety does. ...
  • Asthma. 2/15. ...
  • Diabetes. 3/15. ...
  • Hyperthyroidism. 4/15. ...
  • Sleep Apnea. 5/15. ...
  • Adrenal Dysfunction. 6/15. ...
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) 7/15. ...
  • Electrolyte Imbalance. 8/15.
28 Jun 2021

What is false anxiety? ›

Unwanted thoughts are one of the most common examples of false anxiety. Often time we as humans tend to be cynical, thinking about worst case scenarios, 'what if' thoughts so to speak. We tend to get so caught up in our thoughts that we end up getting trapped by them.

Does childhood anxiety go away? ›

Fortunately, most children diagnosed with anxiety disorders will outgrow them, provided they live in supportive environments and get appropriate treatment.

How do I know if it's anxiety or real? ›

Common anxiety signs and symptoms include:
  • Feeling nervous, restless or tense.
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom.
  • Having an increased heart rate.
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating.
  • Trembling.
  • Feeling weak or tired.
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry.

Can anxiety confuse you? ›

Confusion, mental confusion, and bewilderment are common anxiety disorder symptoms often associated with Anxiety Attacks, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive disorder, and others.

How does untreated anxiety affect the brain? ›

Summary: Pathological anxiety and chronic stress lead to structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the PFC, which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia.

Are you born with anxiety? ›

Most researchers conclude that anxiety is genetic but can also be influenced by environmental factors. In other words, it's possible to have anxiety without it running in your family. There is a lot about the link between genes and anxiety disorders that we don't understand, and more research is needed.

How real can anxiety feel? ›

feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down. feeling like other people can see you're anxious and are looking at you. feeling like you can't stop worrying, or that bad things will happen if you stop worrying. worrying about anxiety itself, for example worrying about when panic attacks might happen.

What is the most common anxiety? ›

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

GAD is the most common type of anxiety disorder. The main symptom of GAD is excessive worrying about different activities and events. You may feel anxious a lot of the time if you have GAD.

What a person with anxiety thinks? ›

People with anxiety often have thought patterns such as: Believing the worst will happen. Persistent worry. All-or-nothing thinking.

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