What Are the Signs My Child Has Anxiety?

A big test at school. The first practice of a new sports team. Sleeping over at a friend’s house for the first time.

Many everyday situations can make your child feel nervous or afraid. And a little bit of anxiety is normal — even helpful — as it helps give your child the boost they might need to get through a tough situation.

At Little Wonders Pediatric Therapy in Charlotte, North Carolina, occupational therapists help your child learn strategies to manage anxiety and prevent it from interfering with their development. But telling the difference between normal nervousness and anxiety that requires more attention can be challenging.

What is anxiety?

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), anxiety is "an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure."

While feeling some anxiety is normal, some children experience intense or excessive worry and fear, even panic, over everyday situations. When symptoms are chronic and interfere with daily activities, can’t be controlled, or are not in proportion to the triggering event, clinicians may label these feelings as an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders arise from a host of complex factors, such as biology, genetics, personality, brain chemistry, and life events or circumstances. And an anxiety disorder isn’t a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. Children can be diagnosed with different types of anxiety disorders depending on their unique struggles and triggers.

What are the signs my child has anxiety?

Anxiety looks different in children than it does in adults. Parents should understand that what may present as behavioral, learning, or developmental problems could actually be anxiety in disguise.

To assist parents in knowing when it’s time to call in the experts, we’ve put together a list to help identify the signs of childhood anxiety. Here are the most common ones:

Avoidance behaviors

Does your child avoid going to school or other activities? Childhood anxiety frequently manifests as avoidance, such as refusing or avoiding school, church, sports, and other activities.

Psychosomatic symptoms

If your child frequently complains of belly aches, headaches, or digestive problems and they’ve received a clean bill of health, anxiety could be the culprit.

Excessive worrying or fears

If your child’s fears or worries seem out of proportion to the actual threat and nothing you do or say seems to help, or when their fears and worries lead to trouble breathing and an increased heart rate (panic attack), it’s time to consider an evaluation for an anxiety disorder.

Trouble sleeping

Even for adults, anxiety can keep you up at night. Children may not be able to describe the cause of their sleep trouble, but if your child is experiencing difficulty getting to or staying asleep, anxiety could be at the root of their sleep troubles.  

Perfectionism or overachieving

Anxiety in children can look like high expectations for their school, sports, or extracurricular performance. If your child exhibits excessive signs of perfectionism or overachieving, anxiety might be the cause.

Pessimism or negative thinking patterns

Does your child have a negative outlook or always expect the worst outcome (e.g., Mom is late getting home from work because she’s been in a car accident)? Often children with anxiety imagine the worst.  

Trouble concentrating or restlessness

Is your child having trouble concentrating? Does your child seem restless, on edge, or fidget more than normal? Studies show about three-quarters of children with anxiety report these symptoms.

Tantrums or defiant behavior

Since many children can’t describe their feelings well, childhood anxiety often appears in the form of meltdowns over seemingly meaningless tasks (e.g., getting dressed in the morning) or outbursts of defiance. If your child is exhibiting disruptive behavior, anxiety could be the cause.

Your child doesn’t have to exhibit each of these symptoms to have anxiety, and it’s important to remember that an occasional occurrence of any of these behaviors is normal. But when symptoms become intense, consistent, and begin to interfere with daily life, it’s time to consider professional help.

What can I do as a parent?

The first step in helping your child cope with anxiety is acknowledging they may have the condition so you can educate yourself on it and the treatment options available. Getting a diagnosis will likely mean a trip to a therapist or doctor.

At Little Wonders Pediatric Therapy, occupational therapists help your anxious child by teaching them sensory processing and integration and stress management techniques, establishing healthy routines and habits, developing their self-esteem, and practicing activities that promote relaxation and pleasure.    

If you’re concerned your child has anxiety and it’s interfering with their daily life or normal development, contact Little Wonders Pediatric Therapy today.

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