Can Children Be Anxious? Yes, Here’s What to Look For

By Meredith Dangel

In our last post, we looked at many symptoms of anxiety, which are sometimes overlooked or misunderstood. Today, I want to focus on anxiety in children.

A variety of factors may play a role in a child’s experience of anxiety, including genetics, personality type, adverse experiences, early attachment, environment, and physical health. It is also important to recognize that not all anxieties are the same. A child may experience Separation Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, or Generalized Anxiety Disorder. They may also experience specific phobias or panic attacks.

Adults often fail to recognize anxiety in children for several reasons. Here are a few:

  • We believe kids are too resilient to be anxious.
  • We forget children experience stress.
  • We attribute their symptoms to something else.

As family members, teachers, and mentors, we must remember that children are not inherently resilient, are not oblivious to stress, and often express anxiety differently from adults.

We believe kids are too resilient to be anxious.

Children aren’t inherently resilient. In fact, as Mary Martin says, “If kids were innately resilient, today’s grown-ups would be a lot different.” Resilience must be taught. Integrating negative experiences comes in the context of loving, guiding, nurturing relationship and conversation. Kids don’t bounce back from hardship and trauma without effects on their minds and bodies. If nothing else can convince us of that, just look at the pandemic. (More great articles here and here.)

We forget children experience stress.

Perhaps because adults forget their own childhood experiences, they fail to remember that children experience stress. Childhood is not carefree, no matter how privileged.

Children can be stressed about schoolwork, relationships, parental conflict, peer pressure, and illness, just to name a handful of reasons. Adverse childhood experiences add even more. Stress doesn’t always lead to an anxiety disorder, but it is a risk factor. It is up to the adults in their lives to help them understand and process what is happening around them and within them. According to Yale Medicine, “Children are vulnerable to feeling anxious as they don’t know much about the world and rely on adults for security. 

We attribute their symptoms to something else.

It’s easy for signs of anxiety in children to be mistaken for rude, pouty, or attention-seeking behavior. Remember that all behavior is communication. Before jumping to conclusions, investigate. Find out what may be underneath the surface.

What should I look for?

  • Headaches or stomachaches
  • Nausea or pain when going somewhere new or trying something new
  • Irritability and/or anger
  • “Clingy” behavior or a strong desire to stay home
  • Crying more often or about situations that may appear trivial to you
  • Trouble eating or lack of appetite
  • Change in bowel function
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, sudden increase in bad dreams

Here’s the good news!

Anxiety is treatable. We can use a variety of proven interventions to alleviate current symptoms and help kids manage anxiety over the course of their lives. The first step is creating a supportive, validating space for them to express their worries. Sometimes a therapist is needed, but a patient, thoughtful parent goes a long way.

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