Everyone experiences anxiety – it’s a natural response to certain stressors. Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, are characterized by frequent, intense, excessive anxiety.
It’s important to note that it’s not uncommon to see signs of anxiety in children regardless of whether or not they have an anxiety disorder.
Because children (especially young children) don’t always have the language necessary to communicate their feelings, it can be difficult to recognize an anxiety disorder when one is present. In light of this, it’s important to understand the different signs of anxiety. When you notice that these signs are intense, recurrent, and limiting your child’s ability to function (missing school, not finishing homework, not socializing), your child may have an anxiety disorder.
Signs of Anxiety
Anxiety can manifest itself in a number of ways. Though this is not an exhaustive list, you can look for:
- Physical symptoms: These include rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, sweating, trembling, dizziness, lightheadedness, and discomfort.
- Behavioral symptoms: This might include refusing to go to school, refusing to go into social situations, not sleeping in their own bedroom, or not participating in class.
- Cognitive symptoms: This might include excessive worrying (worrying about a great number of things, exaggerating perceived consequences, catastrophizing), over-reliance on parents, and negative self-talk.
These are signs of anxiety that might manifest themselves in children (and adults) of any age. The trouble with young children is that they are sometimes unable to communicate certain feelings or thoughts. For example, your child might not be able to say, “I’m feeling lightheaded, and my heart is pounding.” She might, on the other hand, be able to communicate, “I feel funny, and things are spinning.” Encourage her to point to parts of her body that might feel funny – you may be able to tell if she has a headache, tightness in the chest, or other symptoms.
In the same vein, spotting behavioral symptoms of anxiety will take a little bit of sleuth work. You should certainly talk to your child about his or her experiences; that said, you’d do well to speak with other parents and teachers about your child’s behaviors to uncover any symptoms your child might not have talked about.
Cognitive symptoms are among the hardest to uncover. Every child is different, so it’s difficult to estimate what exactly constitutes over-reliance. Negative self-talk can be hard to spot if the monologue is internal. When children seem stressed or nervous, it can be very useful to talk to them. Ask them open-ended questions about their thoughts and when they tell you what they’re thinking, ask them about why they’re thinking that way. Empathize with them – be open. Avoid criticizing or telling them their way of thinking is wrong – instead, help them reframe their thoughts.
Kinds of Anxiety
There are a number of different triggers that may cause anxiety, but generalized anxiety may be present when there are no particular triggers. In children, phobias are a particularly common anxiety; children being afraid of the dark, for example, is common in our society. Most of these anxieties will go away on their own over time – when these phobias prevent normal functioning, however, they may be classified as an anxiety disorder.
Separation anxiety is common in young children; again, its classification as a disorder depends heavily on frequency and severity. Children will often complain that they feel sick, have headaches, stomach aches, or other physical ailments at a young age – this is in part because they may not have language sophisticated enough to express their anxiety. Don’t dismiss these physical symptoms because they may be caused by anxiety. Take note of when your child is experiencing these symptoms; if they occur on a Sunday night or Monday morning before school, it could point to separation anxiety or anxiety about school. Often, children will be quite vocal about not wanting to separate from you, which takes a lot of the guesswork out.
Generalized anxiety disorder may be among the most difficult to diagnose, especially in young children. The hallmarks of this disorder are persistent anxious thoughts or feelings about a wide variety of things, from the health and safety of loved ones to grades. There may even be anxiety about cosmic events. The signs we’ve already discussed are important in diagnosing generalized anxiety; in many cases, if your child is experiencing anxiety about a variety of things, it’s good to talk to a mental health professional.
Social anxiety disorder might be thought of as exaggerated and persistent shyness. This can occur when triggers are present (like when the child needs to speak in front of an audience), or in situations with new people. As always, it’s important to remember that some social anxiety isn’t odd at all – from babies “making strange” (acting up or nervousness around strangers), to children who hide behind their parents when meeting new people. When it stops children from going to class or meeting friends, however, it may help to consult with a mental health professional.
Note that there are several other kinds of anxiety that may manifest themselves; the ones listed here are just a few. Symptoms of anxiety tend to be fairly similar. The ones typically listed under “signs of anxiety” are a good road map, though other physical, behavioral, and cognitive symptoms may occur.
Treatments for anxiety vary a lot, depending on the type of anxiety that’s manifesting and your child’s behaviors and preferences. Treatments can range from efforts to promote independent problem solving to medication and cognitive therapies. To recommend a particular treatment here would be irresponsible – each child has his or her own needs, and treatments should be sought in consultation with healthcare professionals.
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
About the Author: Veronica Wallace is a childhood educator and blogging enthusiast. Some of her favorite articles can be found on the Kidthink website. Kidthink specializes in offering clinical treatment of mental illness in children aged twelve and under, along with community outreach and training for this type of treatment.
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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