Anxiety, the “bully of the brain,” at its root is the fear of being out of control. We all experience anxiety at times, and a healthy dose of anxiety can be helpful! For example, when we need to meet a deadline, motivate us to do our best at something, or also give us a warning sign, we need to make some changes in our lives.
Differences between Adults, Teens & Children
As adults, we can recognize the signs of anxiety and in turn, articulate that we feel anxious; in most cases, children and teens cannot. Anxiety in children and teens is a great “masquerader,” so signs can easily be missed.
Anxiety becomes a problem based on its frequency, intensity, and if it begins to interfere with everyday life. That being said, anxious children can be happy and enjoying life; it is just in certain situations or circumstances where they are struggling. Here’s what you can look for:
Outward Signs of Childhood Anxiety
- Kids may have trouble sleeping (especially in their room) or complain about stomachaches, headaches, or other physical symptoms.
- They may have freezing or clinging behavior with their caregivers or parents or become avoidant of certain activities, places, or situations. A child may want to avoid going over bridges or develop a fear of vomiting. A teen may become avoidant, especially of social activities or look for lots of reassurance from others.
- They may become preoccupied with death or world news, continually asking questions and wanting to know everything they can about a dead person, illness, or world event.
- They might have trouble focusing or concentrating in class or become very fidgety. Teens habitually late to classes may have begun rituals they use to lessen their anxiety (i.e., handwashing, locker combinations, or the way they walk to class). Young kids might get out of their seat often, ask lots of questions, go to the bathroom a lot or get in other children’s spaces.
- They may have explosive, angry outbursts, tantrums or complete meltdowns which can feel very oppositional and defiant. For example, a teacher may unwittingly embarrass a teen triggering their fight mechanism, and the teen has an explosive outburst.
- A homework assignment that should take 20 minutes might take an hour. For a teen, this may be due to intense self-criticism or trouble concentrating. A young child might erase and erase until something is “perfect” or have a complete meltdown if she makes a mistake.
Inward signs of childhood anxiety
With anxiety, it is essential to note its internal nature. It dominates a child’s thoughts, but it may not be evident to the people around her. Some words we may use to describe what we see in our children and teens may be shy, apprehensive, self-conscious, perfectionist, worrier, or afraid. These words can help identify the anxiety as well as be an excellent way to help explain what the child or teen might be experiencing, but they have the danger of reinforcing the behaviors as a personality failure or deficit rather than what it is—a symptom of anxiety. Again, anxiety is the “bully of the brain” so an inward sign expressed outwardly might be if a child or teen is talking very harshly about himself or others. Pay attention to how your child tells a story about something that happened to him or someone else.
Fortunately, we now know a lot about how to treat anxiety, and it does not have to be a lifelong thing. Getting treatment for anxiety as early as possible allows you and your child to learn tools that last a lifetime. Early treatment of anxiety can prevent future, more complicated, mental health disorders.
This original story was provided by TSSM contributor Caitlyn Dunn, LCSW. For more advice on anxiety and related topics, go to https://www.caitlyndunncounseling.com.