Everything You Want to Know About Childhood Anxiety

About Childhood Anxiety

You’re late – again.

Your child slept in because they struggled to get to sleep last night.

You rush around trying to get everyone ready for the day ahead. Your child is crying or screaming, and telling you they don’t feel well.  They don’t want to eat breakfast, because who wants to eat when they don’t feel well, right?  

Yesterday it was the same story, only he was telling you he couldn’t breathe well.  

Tomorrow she’ll be telling you she thinks she’s going to throw up. 

Some mornings it passes fairly quickly, and you’re so very grateful.

Some mornings it doesn’t pass quickly, and it feels like all-out war. You’re exhausted by 8:30am, worried about your child and convinced somewhere along the way you messed up BIG TIME. 

In the absence of other symptoms, and if this happens often enough that you’re nodding your head right now, your child might have anxiety. 

Anxiety is normal and useful
Anxiety is normal and useful

Anxiety itself is normal and useful

It keeps us on alert when danger is present; it can keep us safe.

Anxiety only becomes a problem when it’s excessive, there is no rational reason for the worry or fear, and when it is impacting your life negatively.

For example:

Normal Anxiety: That person is making me feel anxious, I’m going to run away ASAP.        

👉 Excessive Anxiety: Every person I don’t know makes me feel anxious; I’m going to avoid ALL of them, if possible.

Normal Anxiety: A dog bit me last month, and now I’m anxious about all dogs.

👉 Excessive Anxiety: All animals trigger a complete meltdown that lasts for a long time.

Normal Anxiety: Being anxious on the first day of school.

👉 Excessive Anxiety: Having anxiety every morning before school, when there is no rational explanation.  

How can I tell if my child has anxiety?

Because they’re little, and don’t always know how to express what they’re feeling… and because anxiety can be physically felt differently in different people… it looks different for everyone, which makes it tricky to figure out.

If you are able to get to the root of the symptoms, and determine if there is a valid cause, you will have a better idea if your child has anxiety. For example, if the tummy ache is rare, and accompanied by physical sickness vs. frequent and happens at the same time every day. OR if there was an incident that caused a specific phobia (e.g. dog attack, scary spider) vs. a phobia that has no origin that you know of.

Anxiety in kids often presents as:

  • Tantrums (FREAK OUTS!)
  • Withdrawals (FREAK INS)
  • Headache or tummy ache
  • Breathing problems
  • Racing heart
  • Often Scared/ Worried but can’t articulate a reason

What is anxiety though?

When people talk about ‘having anxiety’, they might be talking about two different things. They could be talking about a diagnosed condition, or they might be using the term anxiety to describe a feeling.

Strictly speaking, anxiety isn’t a condition, it’s a feeling. It’s a natural emotion that is normal and healthy to feel sometimes, in the same way that it’s normal to feel anger, sadness and frustration.  We WANT our kids to feel some anxiety, and to learn what to do with that BIG feeling, so that they can handle it when they are older. Kids who never learn to handle anxious feelings will struggle later in life – when they don’t make a high school try out, want to ask someone out for a date, or have to prepare for an exam.

Fight, Flight or Freeze

Understanding anxiety requires understanding something called the “stress response” or the “fight or flight system.” This is a natural body process that prepares you, mentally and physically, to deal with challenges.

It starts with a stressor, usually some kind of perceived threat. (eg. a new person or situation) This triggers the release of hormones that help different parts of your mind and body communicate with each other.

These chemicals lead to a number of changes in the way in which your body works including changes that you probably don’t notice (like slowing down your digestion) and changes that you probably do notice (a faster heartbeat and a change in breathing).

Faster breathing helps more oxygen get into your blood and a faster heartbeat helps to circulate that oxygenated blood through your body, especially to your muscles. (It’s a GREAT response if you need to RUN AWAY!!)

Usually, these symptoms come on somewhat gradually due to something that you have good reason to worry about. It usually isn’t scary, and it may even help you to do what you need to do to resolve or leave the situation. In these cases, a big reaction makes sense.

It can come on FAST

Sometimes, however, it comes on quickly, which makes it seem more scary. It may be brought on by fears of things that aren’t likely to happen.

Those changes to the heartbeat and breathing may be so severe that they cause chest pain and light-headedness. Your child may even feel like they are going to die. This is called an “anxiety attack” or a “panic attack” and it’s a major sign that they might have an anxiety disorder or a related condition.

Keep in mind that for kids, the perceived ‘threat’ might be something that to adults seems insignificant. A certain food texture, animals, new places or people can all be causes, and make children feel anxious.

What do I do, now that I think my child might have anxiety?

There are a number of quizzes and symptom checkers online that you can use to try to determine whether your child has anxiety. None of them are substitutions for talking to your doctor, however, but they are a great resource to start with!

There are no real tests for anxiety, so a diagnosis of anxiety disorders and related conditions is usually based on the symptoms that a patient describes to a general healthcare provider or mental health expert.

Treatments may range from prescription medications to talk-therapy, to diet and lifestyle changes. These will depend on the nature and severity of the symptoms and on the preferences of the parents & child.

How to help anxious kids at home
How to help anxious kids at home

Tips for handling anxiety at home 🏠

PRACTICE DEEP BREATHING

Encourage kids to practice deep breathing, to make sure the entire brain gets enough oxygen in times of stress. Incorporate these games into each day:

  • Blow bubbles often!
  • Blow up balloons
  • Practice deep breathing yourself, and encourage your child to copy your breathing pattern
  • Pretend to blow out birthday candles

READ

Read books that help them understand how they’re feeling, that’s it normal and learn how to handle their feelings.

Parents reading to daughter
Read about how to handle worries and anxiety together

REINFRCEMENT

Praise the effort, not the outcome.

Any attempt to solve the problem, try something new, or face a fear should be rewarded with praise (“You tried so hard!” “You must be so proud at that effort!”), as opposed to rewarding the outcome (“Yay, you WON!”). This will reduce the anxious feelings that can be tied to ‘success’.

Tips for handling anxiety at school

Check in regularly to make sure your child is getting the support they need

✔️ awareness

  • let the teacher know your concerns about your child’s anxiety. 
  • try to be specific, saying your child has anxiety isn’t enough for the teacher to take action on

✔️ triggers

When is your child most likely to be anxious?

  • transitions
  • beginning of day
  • eating times
  • group times
  • talking in front of the class

✔️ allies

Share what strategies work at home

  • relaxation strategies
  • talking it out
  • having a few minutes alone
Teacher and student on zoom
Teacher and student on zoom – childhood anxiety

If you got this far and you suspect anxiety to be the cause of certain behaviours in your house, do the online survey first. Then have a look through these amazing resources, that are broken up by age range and type of anxiety. (there are 5 main types) There is even a great app on this site that will help people learn to relax and take charge of their anxiety.

The good news is that there are loads of resources for handling anxiety, and that you and your children are not alone!

Have questions you still want answered? Let me know below!

Laurie Wright

Laurie Wright

Teacher turned author, turned children's mental health advocate. Laurie has given a TEDx talk, gives workshops for parents, teachers, and children, and has published five books in the Mindful Mantras series, all to help combat the crisis kids are currently facing. Teachers can't stop the urge to teach! A course for creatives who want to write for kids is coming soon!
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