The Impacts of Anxiety on Children and Warning Signs to Watch For
Anxiety disorders impact people of all ages, and children are no exception. Anxiety has several indicators you can look for in your child, so, if they are feeling anxious, they won’t have to go through it alone. With the right treatment and support, children with anxiety can make it easily manageable.
Anxiety Disorders in Children
Anxiety comes in many forms and has several causes. It can be genetic or linked to another form of mental health. It can also be caused by traumatic life events that someone can not move past on their own. Forms of anxiety include Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Separation Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder and individualized phobias. Luckily, there are several options for treatment, as there are so many manifestations.
It’s natural for children to go through phases where they might invent a monster under the bed or keep reimagining a scary movie they should not have seen, but when these fears persist and interfere with daily functioning, it could be the sign of underlying anxiety or depression issues. Children do not always communicate their worries. Sometimes, parents need to look for signs that something is wrong, like a change in behavior. For example, if your child stops responding to a form of punishment that has worked previously, it can be a sign that something, like anxious thinking, has changed the way they see the world. Just like with negative stimuli, if children start reacting differently to things they found fun before, that is another sign that their outlooks on the world could be skewed by anxiety. Many things can change in a child because of anxiety, including their performance in school, sports or other routine activities. In an article from anxiety.org, Dr. Liz Matheis, Ph.D. explains the symptoms of anxiety, different forms it comes in and tendencies anxious children have. She writes, “Anxiety can look like your child is struggling with a particular subject, but it is the thought that they can’t do math that leads to losing out on instruction, rather than a true learning disability.” Whether it be at home or in the classroom, it is important to note changes in behavior, and figure out their causes because anxiety can mask itself behind other behaviors.
When a child deals with anxiety, it means their fight or flight response is overactive. This response is a genetic defense against any kind of danger people encounter, but children with anxiety cannot keep their minds from racing between fight and flight, even though there is no danger. Signs like crying or having outbursts will occur more frequently and your child may dwell on negative memories more often. Anxiety develops more commonly in children after they’ve experienced a traumatic event or a situation so serious that they keep reliving it. A traumatized child has had their perspective changed so drastically by the experience, that there is a permanent change to their mindset. Afterward, the child’s body and mind stay on alert constantly and unconsciously.
Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
Even though anxiety is a form of mental illness, it manifests itself in physical symptoms, as well as mental symptoms. Some of the physical signs of anxiety in children include:
- Shaking – Trembling hands or a constantly bouncing foot are both signs of anxiety. Any kind of restlessness or body-focused repetitive behaviors can be a form of anxiety management.
- Shortness of breath – Unconscious bodily mechanisms can be triggered by anxiety too, causing the child to have shortness of breath or other symptoms. Especially when overwhelmed or suddenly put into a stressful situation, a child with anxiety might find it hard to breathe.
- Clammy hands – Excessive sweating or clammy hands are also common in children with anxiety. At any given time, their hands might feel like those of a nervous performer stepping on stage because someone with anxiety can have uneasy nerves from going through everyday events.
- Racing heart – A racing heart is another example of an internal effect anxiety has on a person. With an anxious mind, someone’s internal organs are almost always gearing up for a fight or flight response, even without any present danger. The heart races to get blood anywhere it might be needed in an emergency, but when the heart stays distressed consistently, it is draining on the person experiencing it.
- Stomach aches – A child consistently using stomach aches as an excuse to get out of things can mean a couple things. If there are no digestive problems, the child may still experience stomach pain from nervousness over doing something that they fear they are not good at. It can also be an indication of anxiety if the child does not physically feel sick from the thought of something but uses an upset stomach as an excuse to avoid that thing altogether. Either way, persistent stomach aches before school, during instruction, or during a non-preferred activity is a warning sign to watch for.
Mental Symptoms of Anxiety
Mental symptoms of anxiety can be harder to spot, depending on how much the person chooses to withhold. Inferences about a child’s mental state can be made from observing behaviors that are on display if the child does not directly go for help. Here are some signs that could indicate anxious thought processes in your child:
- Worrying about everything – Excessive worrying is a clear sign of anxiety. If a child shows an unusual amount of pessimism or expresses concerns that might not even affect them, it could be a sign that their anxiety is making every outlook seem bleak. No child’s everyday life should be dominated by worries that may not even be valid when seen objectively.
- Acting scared – Since an anxious person’s brain is typically on alert anyway, any kind of problem can seem more scary. Children with anxiety could have a stronger reaction to a fear since their mind is already focussed on things that make them stressed. Acting scared can refer to a person’s actions in general situations, like public speaking or test taking. Someone with anxiety might show more fear than the average person in the same situation because their mind already had a head start on creating fear.
- Acting upset – Dealing with anxious thoughts is exhausting, especially for children who have not learned how to manage them in a healthy way. Since managing these thoughts puts a tremendous amount of pressure on someone, they may not be able to handle it all. Someone with anxiety has more of a likelihood to snap at someone or feel upset for no reason. Unexplained tension or other signs that your child is regularly upset are important to monitor because they are closely linked with anxiety disorders.
- Fear of attention – When a child feels anxious, they become self-conscious about themselves and their abilities. In school, children are surrounded by their peers, and anxiety might lead someone to believe they are being judged, even if they are not. They may fear being put on the spot or even anticipating talking in class because they do not want to look bad in front of peers. The same insecurities can cause someone to fear criticism. Children with anxiety already feel a lot of pressure from their perceived weaknesses and any kind of critique might overwhelm them.
Behavioral Symptoms of Anxiety
There are also behavioral cues that can be used to detect anxiety in children. If your child has trouble sleeping, it could be that they cannot quiet their mind at bedtime and their racing thoughts keep them up. Sleep problems have also been attributed to depression, so any problems your child has sleeping should be taken seriously. The racing thoughts associated with anxiety disorders can exhaust someone’s mind, while also keeping them from sleeping. Along with tension from fending off so many anxious thinking patterns, the lack of sleep someone with anxiety can get can easily affect the person’s mood. For this reason, explosive outbursts are another sign of anxiety in children. Your child may seem constantly stressed, and when something does not go their way, it could set them off.
Similar to fearing attention, parents can watch to see if their children seem too clingy, especially around new people. Parents should watch for excessive shyness whenever their child sees someone new, and besides not talking, constantly hiding behind a known adult is a giveaway. Depending on the case, it might not even be the fear of new people. Separation anxiety might lead to your child clinging to you more because of an irrational fear of being left behind.
Help For Kids with Anxiety
Anxiety disorders have several treatments that combat the intrusive thinking patterns that dominate an anxious person’s thought. One form of treatment called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is frequently recommended for children. The Center for Disease Control suggests a number of therapy options but notes that CBT can be a popular choice to help children because of the long term benefits. Not only does CBT help people manage their current problem, but it also teaches them how to recognize negative thought patterns and manage them in a healthy way. Children will be able to look at these thoughts objectively and discredit them with strategies they’ve learned in therapy. Aspire Child & Family Services offers Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and specializes in working with children. If you suspect that your child is suffering from an anxiety disorder, call Aspire CFS at (267) 388-0670.
Learn more about how we help children with anxiety.