Although we tend to associate anxiety with adulthood, children are just as affected. According to the 2018 Children’s Mental Health Report by Child Mind Institute, around 30% of children suffer from anxiety at one point and this thought can be harrowing for any parent. Childhood is supposed to be the most beautiful period of someone’s life and experiencing the symptoms of anxiety at such an early age can feel unfair.
There are several causes behind anxiety in children, from genetic factors to traumatic life events, big life changes, problems at school, abuse, or negative examples from other family members. The good news is that with guidance and compassion, children can overcome anxiety before it leads to depression and other serious mental health conditions. But to do that, you have to familiarize yourself with this checklist and learn how to recognize anxiety in children.
Anxiety in Children Symptoms Checklist
The signs of anxiety can manifest differently from child to child. Here are some things you shouldn’t ignore:
- Restlessness and hyperactivity in the absence of an ADHD diagnosis
- Shakiness and sweating in uncomfortable situations
- Shortness of breath
- Clammy hands, dry mouth, redness – these are typical “fight or flight” responses
- Refusing to use the bathroom at school
- Lack of appetite at school or daycare center
- Headaches and stomach aches that can’t be explained by any other health issue
Emotional and Behavioral Signs
While physical symptoms can be very important, most of the time the symptoms of anxiety are more obvious in children’s emotional responses and behavior. Children who experience anxiety:
- Cry a lot and are very sensitive
- Become angry and irritable for no apparent reason
- Go through panic attacks
- Have many nightmares and are afraid to sleep alone
- Worry about distant things or abstract notions
- Avoid taking part in social activities at school and generally have trouble socializing. Anxious children often sit alone during recess and can even refuse to go to school altogether because they don’t want to interact with anyone. Sometimes, this behavior also occurs after school: children can refuse to go to birthday parties, or making new friends at the playground.
- Are afraid of going to school or kindergarten without their parents and cry when they’re being dropped off (this is in fact the main symptom of separation anxiety)
- Are often silent and are afraid to speak in class – this can go all the way to selective mutism, a form of anxiety disorder where children can’t speak in specific social settings, such as in school, or around people they’ve just met.
- Show a lack of self-confidence and need constant reassurance from parents and teachers
- Have regular outbursts and even sensory meltdowns. Although they may look the same as tantrums, sensory meltdowns are more intense and occur when your child is overstimulated and overwhelmed. They can occur when your child is in a busy place, with too many loud noises and other stimuli that draw their attention. The main difference between tantrums and meltdowns is that tantrums are usually attention-seeking behaviors and stop once they receive what they want. Meltdowns are uncontrollable and stop only after you take your child to a safe, reassuring space.
Important Things to Consider
80% of children with anxiety never get help and part of this is because their symptoms weren’t taken seriously. Sometimes it’s easy to discard children’s worries as unfounded, but what may seem minor to an adult can be traumatic for a child. This is why you shouldn’t neglect the signs of anxiety in children and, when your child opens up to you about their fears, you should take them seriously, be supportive, and ask a specialist for help.
Talk to your child’s teacher regularly. Sometimes, anxiety symptoms are more pronounced in school or kindergarten, where they are out of their comfort zone. The teacher often knows how to recognize the signs of anxiety in children before the parent and can also notice other problems, such as trouble concentrating or difficulty socializing with other kids.
Encourage your child to open up and talk about their feelings. Unlike adults, children don’t understand mental health concepts very well and they may not be able to understand and cope with their feelings. If it occurs when children haven’t yet fully developed their language skills, they can have trouble explaining what scares them, so help them talk about their feelings. In turn, you should learn how to listen and be a reassuring presence when they show you this kind of trust.
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Helping your child cope with anxiety starts by recognizing the symptoms. While it’s normal to feel that it is your responsibility as a parent to do all this alone, understand that you may not be the best qualified to do so. Talking to a professional therapist can be much more effective because experts can differentiate between the various types of anxiety, assess their severity, and offer a personalized treatment plan. They can give you exercises you can practice at home to boost your child’s confidence and help them face their fears, and guide you through this challenging time. Seeing your child experience anxiety symptoms can be very overwhelming for you too, and an expert’s help can make you feel less powerless.
Keep a log with anxiety symptoms. The signs of anxiety aren’t always severe and they may not occur every day. They can slip under the radar for a long time, especially if both parents lead busy lives and only get to spend a few hours with the child every day. Writing the date and intensity of the symptoms in a journal can help you keep better track of them and seek help before they become too intense. If you don’t have time to monitor your child’s behavior every day, ask the nanny, teacher, or another carer to pay close attention to what triggered the symptoms and write them down.