Anxiety is a feeling that many adults are familiar with. Many adults even seek help for their anxiety and recognize it as a challenge that requires the development of coping skills. Yet, one of the biggest misconceptions about anxiety is that the stress of adult life creates anxiety when if fact, anxiety has nothing to do with age and circumstance.
Anxiety is the result of a healthy, functioning brain being a bit too overprotective. Amygdala, which is a part of the brain, is what keeps us safe by igniting our fight or flight reactions. The amygdala reacts in such an instinctive way that if there is any sign of danger, it will usually act before there is time for true reflection. The fear of the unknown, embarrassment or separation from loved ones can all register as danger to the amygdala and when it is triggered, it initiates a surge of neurochemicals to make us more capable of coping.
Yet, sometimes, the amygdala reacts when it doesn’t need to. This does not mean that something is broken, it simply means that a capable brain is working too hard and being overprotective. There are many avenues to take towards managing anxiety and by seeking help from a place of understanding, coping mechanisms can be learned or put in place to help the brain cope.
However, symptoms of anxiety are often difficult for children to understand and articulate. They know that something is making them feel unwell, but the root of their distress is complex, unknown and can reveal itself in indirect ways. While some of the following phrases are not necessarily signs of an anxious child, they can be used as investigative tools for uncovering the source of confusing behavior in your child:
1. “I feel sick…”
During anxiety, the body slows down anything that is not essential for survival as a means to conserving energy for that fight or flight reaction. As a result, blood flow is directed away from the abdominal organs to the brain, causing a sick stomach and even vomiting. This can also be the reason behind your child telling you that they are not hungry, or showing a lack of appetite.
2. “But what if…”
When a child is constantly asking the questions “what if..” it can be a sign that they are feeling extra stress from the fear unknown, a common anxiety trigger.
3. “I need to pee…”
The neurochemicals released from flight or fight can cause the need for frequent urination. There are numerous theories as to why this happens including muscle tightness and ultra-sensitivity of the central nervous system. While this can be a sign of anxiety in your child, it can also be the result of other physical ailments such a urinary tract infection, so consult a pediatrician if you see changes in your child’s bathroom habits.
4. “I’m tired…”
Keeping the body at a higher rate of flight or fight is exhausting for adults and especially exhausting for children. If a child is showing signs of exhaustion, it could come from lack of rest due to an overactive, anxious brain. However, if you notice concerning or unusual fatigue in your child, always consult a pediatrician to rule out other potential possibilities.
5. “I want to stay with you…”
Separation from loved ones—referred to in child development as “separation anxiety” is common for young children and driven by a fear that something could happen to them when you leave.
6. “I’m sorry…”
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Constant apologies can be a sign that fear of failure or disappointment is creating anxiety symptoms in your child. If your child is timid, fearful and apologetic it could be that their danger instincts are overactive. If you discover that your child is suffering from anxiety, there are many ways to help them develop coping skills through options such as specialized child occupational therapy. However, your words and reactions also carry massive weight in helping your child cope with anxiety.
1. "I am here to help you" instead of… "you’ll be fine."
Your child doesn’t feel fine even though you may see that they are not in danger or have little apparent reason to be upset. So telling them, “You’re fine” only contributes to them not understanding their own emotions and feeling more out of control.
2. "I know you feel anxious but I know you can do this. I am here to support you" instead of..."I’ll do it."
Anxious children do want independence over their worries, but anxious thoughts often get in the way. When you “fix” it and complete the task for the child, they do not have the opportunity to build coping skills.
3. "Can you tell me more about your worries?" instead of... "Don’t worry."
Children should not feel that their worries are unreasonable or unacceptable to you. They should feel safe to reveal their worries to you and be promoted to explain their worries so that you have an opportunity for a discussion that could put their worries to rest.
4. "I see that you’re worried, but I promise that when school is over, I will be back!" Instead of… “Ok, I’ll stay.”
The good thing about separation anxiety is that while the moment of separation is especially challenging and distressing (especially for the parent), it gets better each time the child realizes that nothing terrible happens when they leave. Discuss and establish a special goodbye routine with your child and then stick to it, even if your child is distressed. Each time, they will become more confident in their independence and it will become easier. If you reward your child by staying when they show distress, they will continue to do it. Being investigative about your child’s physical, emotional and spiritual health will often help you reveal hidden triggers that may be causing them distress. Although the idea of a child-size problem causing the same anxiety that you feel from your adult-sized ones may seem hard to believe, the symptoms created are the same. Be attentive and always be an advocate for your child’s mental health.