Anxiety is an emotion that we all experience. In fact, at the right level, it’s even helpful. It heightens our awareness in dangerous situations, enhances our performance and helps us study harder when we have a big test coming up. But like everything else in life, moderation is key and when it crosses a certain level/frequency it can become problematic.
Children have lots of worries growing up that reflect their developmental level like being separated from their parents, fear of the dark, monsters, starting a new school, making friends, doing well on a test. Typical fears like these are normal and short lived, like flying – many people are afraid of flying, we might worry the plane’s going to crash or get butterflies in our stomach at takeoff or if there’s turbulence, but it doesn’t really impair our functioning, we go on that vacation anyways.
This is the difference between normal worry and anxiety disorders, the severity of the anxiety. Feeling anxious is a natural reaction to stressful situations, but it becomes a disorder when it interferes with the one’s ability to handle everyday situations, or causes you to avoid things that are typically enjoyable, like social activities.
SIGNS YOUR CHILD MIGHT HAVE ANXIETY:
Anxiety in children can present itself in a number of ways. Some anxious kids are terribly shy and avoid things other kids enjoy, others throw tantrums and have meltdowns, and some develop rituals like counting or compulsive hand washing, aimed at diminishing their fear. It is commonly a reflection of typical developmental fears that go awry, so younger children have fears regarding separation from their parents whereas older children into adolescents have more social anxiety as they develop an awareness about what their peers think about them. The main thing to note is that the fear is out of proportion to the actual situation.
Three key factors to consider in assessing signs of anxiety:
It is common in adults and more so in children with anxiety for symptoms to manifest themselves physically. Unexplained headaches, nausea, stomachaches, racing heart, sweaty palms or feeling out of breath could all be symptoms of anxiety.
Anxious children’s thoughts are often accented by themes that display apprehension and danger e.g will I make friends, what if no one likes me, what if I fail. This can affect children’s sleeping habits as their anxious thoughts make it difficult to fall asleep.
The most common is avoidance e.g if they are afraid of taking a test they might avoid school. The ‘flight’ part of anxiety shows itself as avoidance, the ‘fight’ part can present itself as anger or tantrums. Acting out is not something we typically associate with anxiety but it can cause aggression. When children are feeling upset or threatened and don’t know how to handle or express their feelings, they might fight or throw things because they are feeling out of control.
Other signs may indicate you child is anxious, such as:
When kids are anxious in the classroom, they might have a hard time focusing on the lesson and ignoring their thoughts. Some kids might appear to “zone out”, suddenly drift away or seem fidgety, which can often look like inattention.
LOTS OF WHAT IF’S:
Children are naturally curious but sometimes curiosity masks anxiety. Notice when questions may start morphing from “how does” or “what is” to more “what ifs.” What if this happens, what if that happens? The what-ifs are an attempt by an anxious brain to stay safe by turning unknowns into knowns. This fear of the unknown can also make transitions difficult.
This can be them second-guessing themselves or needing constant reassurance. We tend to think of perfectionism as a good thing, but when kids are overly self-critical it can sabotage the things they are trying their hardest at. An anxious child might erase their work repeatedly, trying to get it perfect or spend so much time doing an assignment that it never gets finished. To them, the worry of humiliation or failure from making a mistake can be quite anxiety provoking.
Andrea Chamely is a Mental Health Counselor and certified School Counselor working in private practice with children and adolescents. For more information you can contact her office, Theraplay at 2213866 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org