“My kid might have anxiety???”
This is the response 90% of parents have when they find themselves sitting on the couch in my therapy office seeking to gain insight into their child’s confusing and challenging behaviors.
Often they have viewed and approached their child’s mystifying actions through a behavioral lens, with a good dose of rewards, consequences and sticker charts, only to find that the behaviors not only stick around but intensify.
It’s more than understandable that parents don’t catch on to anxiety symptoms in children, given the image most of us create when picturing a child living with excessive stress and worry.
Close your eyes and do your best to conjure up a quick visual of an anxious child. Does it look something like a rainboot clad preschooler hiding behind their mom’s leg on the first day of school?
Anxiety symptoms in children are not that straightforward
Parents are often surprised when I explain how their child’s ‘misbehaviors’ can be more accurately described as ‘distressed behaviors’.
This is due to the way our nervous system responds when under stress. A child whose brain is in fight or flight looks a whole lot like a defiant child who won’t listen.
When our brain perceives we’re under threat our body reacts in the same way as if we were truly in danger.
This is anxiety.
Our amygdala (brains emotion center) is protecting us (as nature intended) through powerful survival instincts. However, when possible variables such as genetics, environment, physical health conditions, and temperament, create the conditions for an overactive amygdala, our brain struggles to discriminate real danger from perceived danger.
When our amygdala begins to work too hard and kick our nervous system into its stress response too often, we see survival instinct type behaviors in our kids.
Here are 10 anxiety symptoms in children that commonly baffle parents but are indicative of our bodies fight-flight-freeze response (and are proven by science).
10 Surprising Anxiety Symptoms in Children
Hands down, this is the one that most commonly throws parents off, even though when you think about it, it makes total sense. How do you react when living in a chronic state of anxiety and overwhelm? Very likely, you are more emotionally reactive.
When our brain’s emotion center is overactivated (which is what happens with anxiety) a child is more inclined to be irritable and reactive as all emotions are working in overdrive.
“Mom how many minutes until we get there?” Every kid asks these questions. Not every kid asks 25 times (yes, literally 25 times) during an hour-long road trip. Not knowing what to expect is highly uncomfortable for kids with anxiety and one way they can cope is by seeking information excessively.
3. Seeking validation
“Do you think I’ll make friends at soccer?” “Do you still think I’m a good kid dad?” “Are you sure I won’t miss you at camp?” Anxiety has the tendency to make us think and feel as if there’s something wrong with us.
The excessive seeking of reassurance is a common symptom of generalized anxiety as well as a more specific form of anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The obsessions are uncomfortable reoccurring anxious thoughts, and the compulsion is any behavior, including asking questions, with the end goal of seeking reassurance to try to find relief.
When your brain triggers a fight or flight response a number of physiological changes are set off in the body. It’s actually pretty awesome how our amazing human brain’s and bodies work together to protect us!
Just one small example of many is the ‘butterfly effect’, or when our digestive system temporarily slows down in an effort to conserve energy and send more blood to the brain (to aid in survival instincts). This is precisely why so many children report having a stomach ache when they are anxious or worried.
Have you ever avoided paying the bills or having that uncomfortable conversation with your boss for days or even weeks on end? Children with anxiety utilize avoidance as a coping mechanism but in a more blatant way that can look like defiance or oppositional behavior. Three of the most common examples I hear in my therapy office are,
“I’m not doing that!”
“You can’t make me, you’re not the boss of me”
“No matter what you say I won’t do it”
When children are digging in this hard to assert a sense of control, it’s because internally they feel very out of control which can be a by-product of anxiety.
6.Struggling to fall asleep
Anxious thoughts love to visit when our minds are quiet and the hustle and bustle of the day are no longer there to distract us. These thoughts make it difficult to physically and mentally relax in order for healthy sleep responses to occur.
Night waking is also common when our brains are functioning out of a state of anxiety and are more hypervigilant of any external or internal stimuli such as a noise from the hallway or a scary dream.
>>Need help for your child’s anxiety? I recommend courses from my colleague who specializes with childhood anxiety, Natasha Daniels
7.Trouble with focus
Living under a heightened state of stress puts a child’s brain on continual ‘survival mode’, meaning the emotion center of the brain is continually overactivated. When a child’s amygdala is working in overdrive their ‘thinking brain’ (located in the frontal lobe) automatically becomes less accessible.
This is why anxiety makes everyday executive functioning endeavors such as sustaining focus, impulse control and staying organized exponentially more difficult.
Tears start flowing seemingly out of the blue when your child is in the midst of the nighttime routine or packing their backpack for school in the morning.
A brain operating in emotional overdrive will need a release for all emotions including sadness, and this release often comes when your child is triggered by common environmental challenges such as not getting something they want, a minor disagreement with a sibling/friend ect or having to transition from one activity to another.
9. Running away/hiding
“My child doesn’t listen. She runs under her bed at home when it’s time to go to bed and has even started to hide under her a table at school when she doesn’t like what they’re doing.”
Running away is simply the ‘flight’ part of fight or flight. When your child feels overwhelmed, her brain is triggered her to physically escape the situation as a means for survival.
“I want to stay with you and not go to school”. Having a caregiver nearby to offer physical comfort and reassurance provides a temporary band-aid for a child’s anxiety symptoms. The thought of being ‘on their own’ at school may leave a child feeling uncomfortable and overwhelmed and the reduced ability to use their rational brain to reason, often times leaves them unable to pinpoint exactly ‘why’ they don’t want to go.
A child’s behaviors communicate their needs
It is so darn easy to see shutting down or acting out behaviors as intentional choices on a child’s part and not what they truly are, anxiety symptoms in children. When parents better understand the neurological mechanisms that drive anxiety it becomes clear that what they are dealing with is not a behavioral issue, but very real symptoms of anxiety.
Every child displays some of these behaviors as part of typical development. The difference between typical childhood behaviors and behaviors due to a treatable anxiety condition is that the daily functioning of a child living with anxiety is being negatively impacted in multiple environments more days than not- for an extended period of time. If you feel your child may have anxiety, know that it is a highly treatable and very common condition with the adequate provision of research indicated supports and treatments.
As Karen Young from Hey Sigmund writes so beautifully, “Anxiety is the work of a strong, healthy brain that’s a little overprotective.”
Want more support for your anxious child or suspect you may have an anxious child?
This new online community from fellow child therapist and anxiety expert Natasha Daniels is just what you’re looking for. Check out more here.
If you have a child who experiences anxiety, check out Karen’s amazing book ‘Hey Warrior’ that teaches kids through beautiful words and imagery about anxiety and how to find relief.