Could your child have anxiety? Learn 5 sneaky signs of anxiety in children from an expert therapist so you can help your child.
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When my son was 7, he showed his first sign of anxiety and I missed it.
I, the occupational therapist that had worked with hundreds of kids, totally didn’t realize that my son’s crying and freakouts about going to school were due to anxiety. In his case, it happened over-night. Seemingly out of nowhere.
I had never seen this behavior in him before and I’m ashamed to admit that I thought it was a phase or that he was being bad in some way.
Gosh, it’s hard to type those words and admit to myself that I reacted that way, especially now that coping with anxiety for two of my children is a way of life.
I couldn’t get over the fact that his actions (the crying and dramatic clawing at me for dear life as the bus pulled in to pick up kids for the day) were so out of character.
I felt annoyed, exhausted, and was just waiting for him to go back to happily hopping on the bus each day.
After 5 days, I couldn’t ignore the signs anymore and I reached out to friends for prayers and advice. At that point, it was obvious that my son was experiencing some sort of anxiety and I was doing nothing to help him.
This is a difficult story to share because it’s not how I want to show up as a parent. I want my kids to feel 100% supported, and in this instance, that’s not what happened. But, I also have to give myself some grace, because anxiety is not my expertise.
And, we do better when we know better.
That’s why I’m sharing this story with you, I know I’m not alone. Many kids (and parents) are struggling with these big feelings that feel out of control, scary, and overwhelming.
Those feelings could be caused by anxiety.
Once you know that there’s a connection, it changes everything. Instead of feeling drained, you feel empowered. Instead of waiting for it to end, you get down on your child’s level and you help them.
The truth is that while I did help my son, it was just the beginning of a journey. It got better and then it got worse. A year and a half later, my son’s anxiety got so bad he was struggling to leave the house at all and was experiencing anxiety attacks.
You know what got us through?
What changed absolutely everything?
Natasha Daniels, LCSW Child Therapist, creator of Anxious Toddlers to Teens, my absolute go to expert! Specifically her exceptional work in the online course, Crush Anxiety, an online course she created to help parents like me and you that don’t know how to help their kid with anxiety.
I am beyond excited to welcome Natasha to Your Kid’s Table today to share with you the signs of anxiety that we frequently miss as parents. It’s an honor to have her here. I’ll let Natasha take it away…
Important Signs That a Child Might Be Struggling With Anxiety
Often, when we think of an anxious child, we imagine a scared, timid child who is clinging to our legs. Of course this can be true but this stereotype can blind us and prevent us from seeing anxiety, even when we are staring right at it.
If we miss anxiety, we miss an important opportunity to empower our child and build their skills to live a happier life. We’re also going to feel super frustrated, because most typical parenting approaches won’t work on anxiety.
So, that won’t be fun.
Let me break down some of the major signs that a child might be struggling with anxiety. These are just some red flags and aren’t meant to be used to diagnose anxiety. As always, it’s important to get the guidance of a qualified professional in your area.
Let’s dig in… Here Are 5 Areas That Are Often a Sign of Anxiety in Children
1. Sleeping and eating become a battle
Anxiety loves to creep in at night and get cozy with our kids. Nighttime brings many things with it. Darkness. Separation. No distractions. An 8-hour mini-death.
All of which can make a child very nervous to go to sleep.
If your child is:
- Scared to sleep on their own
- Wants you to check on them often
- Winds up in your bed most nights
- Takes forever to go to sleep
You might want to explore the issue further and see what lies underneath those behaviors.
And then there is mealtime…
Anxiety also likes to make our children super picky about their food. They might wonder what’s in their food. Is their food cooked enough? Is it too chewy? Will they choke? Will it have a surprising taste or texture? Will it touch their other foods? What brand is the food?
The list can go on and on.
Many anxious kids also have sensory issues and some even have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Not every child with SPD has anxiety, and not every child with anxiety has SPD, but
anxiety and sensory struggles do love to hang out together.
2. You hear constant complaints about your child not feeling well
Anxiety doesn’t just impact the mind, it impacts the body. It has direct access to your child’s digestive tract, your child’s heart rate, your child’s bowel movements (or lack thereof), your child’s ability to swallow and so much more!
When you start to see these physical complaints before school, bedtime, or other activities, you want to pay attention to those patterns. Often, when anxiety shows up, so do the physical complaints.
It’s always good to rule out any medical origin first, but when the doctors are left scratching their head, you want to expand your search to possible anxiety-related causes as well.
3. Your child gives you a hard time about going to school
Many kids don’t like going to school, but some anxious kids will have sheer panic about going. School brings with it many anxiety triggers. Often anxious kids feel sick, and with that comes the fear they might throw up in front of others.
They can also worry about separating from their parent, often their mom. The idea of separating can make them feel sick to their stomach, which fuels more anxiety. It is a vicious cycle.
Kids can also worry about perfectionism, grades, angry teachers, judgmental peers, and germs – just to name a few school-related anxiety themes.
If you have been dealing with school battles and your child is doing well socially and isn’t being bullied, you might want to explore some possible anxiety-rooted issues.
4. Your child wants to avoids things
Anxiety’s favorite fuel is avoidance. The more a child avoids, the bigger the anxiety grows.
The more the anxiety grows, the more the child avoids. It is a perpetual cycle.
If you see your child refusing to do something that they used to do, you want to explore what is going on.
Some kids want to avoid being in social situations, being around crowds, going to school, going to restaurants, starting something new (like a new class or team) or just about anything else!
If you see your child avoiding places or situations, you might want to do some further digging to find out the core reason behind the avoidance. Kids will often give parents throw away answers like, “it’s boring” or “it’s dumb!” But don’t always take those answers at face value.
Keep digging, just to be sure you aren’t missing something.
5. Your child doesn’t want to do anything independently
The last common sign of anxiety I’ll cover here is a lack of independence. When this is an issue, you’ll have a shadow. Wherever you go, your child doesn’t seem too far behind. Sometimes parents don’t notice this at first.
But when you start to pay attention, you start to realize that wherever you are, so is your child.
Your child might also demand that you or someone else come with them when they have to do something. If they have to go upstairs, you hear, “Can you come with me?”
If they have to brush their teeth, they ask, “Can you come with me?” In fact, as you start to pay attention, you might notice that your child requires someone to be with them all of the time.
This lack of independence is often driven by the fear that something bad will happen to them if they are alone. Most parents will say, “but nothing bad has ever happened to my child?”
Anxiety doesn’t care.
I’ve never been attacked by a shark, but sharks still scare me. Most kids with anxiety are afraid of things that they’ve never even experienced first hand.
Pay attention to your child’s need to not be alone. This is often one of the first signs that anxiety is knocking at the door.
3 Things Every Parent Needs to Know About Anxiety
I had a chance to sit down with Natasha Daniels and ask 3 questions that I’ve heard so many parents ask and that I’ve asked myself:
- What are we in danger of if we ignore or minimize our child’s anxiety?
- Do parents cause their child’s anxiety?
- What’s 1 step parents can take today to help their child with anxiety?
Her answers are poignant, helpful, and most importantly honest. Tap or click to listen below…
What to Do When Your Child Shows Signs of Anxiety…
Did some of these signs sound familiar? If you are concerned, it can never hurt to take your child to a therapist to get an assessment. Being proactive is the best line of defense against anxiety.
Also, regardless of whether your child has been formally diagnosed with anxiety or not, there are TONS of things parents can do on their own to arm their child with skills that can last a lifetime.
Read books that empower kids to fight their fears and work through their anxiety. Take online classes that walk you through building your child’s skills at home. Listen to podcasts, like the AT Parenting Survival Podcast, where you can learn how to parent anxious kids.
But whatever you do, don’t remain stagnant.
Anxiety should never be a “wait and see” kind of problem. Every child can be building their skills. Every child can be learning how to face their fears. Every child can live a life where anxiety does not hold them back. They just need you to show them.
Get the Crush Anxiety Class!
Natasha’s online class saved my child. It gave me clear and simple-to-use tools to help my child instead of watching him drown in his anxiety. In our case, it helped us avoid therapy. And, as a family, we had a new way to communicate about and cope with anxious feelings. The silver lining was that our bond was deepened so much further.
He knows he can come to me at any time and I’ll help him.
If you’ve been looking for tools and specific strategies to help your anxious child, then I can’t recommend Natasha’s Crushing Anxiety course enough.
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 19 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.