A little anxiety is normal, but if a child frequently limits her activities or worries excessively, it could be a sign that she has an anxiety disorder. Parents can help by understanding the symptoms and encouraging kids to talk openly with a family doctor or mental health professional.
The most common signs of anxiety in children are fear and worry, irritability or difficulty concentrating. Some anxious children also have physical sensations, such as diarrhoea, headaches or stomachaches (also called somatic complaints). These are part of the body’s “fight-or-flight” response, when a child thinks something terrible is happening or might happen.
Kids who are very anxious or worried may have trouble sleeping. They may also have trouble talking or engaging in social situations. These are the characteristics of generalized anxiety disorder. In addition, some anxious children seek constant reassurance or act in ways that make them seem self-conscious, doubtful, or obsessed with meeting others’ expectations. Children with these behaviors are diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Another type of anxiety, separation anxiety, causes a child to fear leaving home or school. Typical separation anxiety is temporary and usually subsides by the time a child is about 9 years old. Children who continue to have separation anxiety are sometimes diagnosed with specific phobias, such as fears of thunderstorms, spiders or being left alone.
Some children develop negative coping strategies to deal with their anxiety, such as avoidance. They might refuse to go to the pool or class pool party, or stay with someone they know so they don’t have to interact with strangers. This type of anxiety can be dangerous, because it prevents children from doing things they enjoy or interacting with their friends and family.
Other children find it difficult to tell when their thoughts and feelings are caused by anxiety or a bigger problem. They might not understand that the things they are afraid of or worried about are not real, and they might misinterpret their own behavior. This can lead to depression and other emotional difficulties.
Talking with a family doctor or therapist is the best way to get accurate information about child anxiety symptoms. They can also teach kids healthy coping skills and offer treatment options.
Children who experience anxiety often feel powerless to change their feelings. They may be told, “Don’t be silly,” or, “Everyone feels scared sometimes.” Dismissing or minimizing their concerns can be especially damaging because it can lead to feelings of shame or confusion. It is important to validate a child’s emotions and to encourage them to learn how to manage them. Some coping skills to try include personalizing and externalizing their anxieties: Give them names like “spiky-toothed purple Bobo” or “that rascally worm.” Remind them that they can be in control of their own thoughts and feelings, not the other way around. Parents can model confidence by being calm themselves and by previewing anxiety-provoking situations, such as camping or sleepovers, ahead of time. Medications can also help reduce the severity of some anxiety disorders, particularly in teens and young adults.