You’re noticing your child seems to have more worries lately, is on edge, and frankly, just can’t seem to enjoy life. You’re thinking “Are these worries normal for a kid her age? How much is too much?”
Before you get too worried, let me first start by saying anxiety is a normal part of life, and can even be a good thing. It encourages us to act when something doesn’t feel right.
For example, your child sees a stranger down the street and gets a bad feeling in her gut. She goes inside the house, just to be safe. Or your child is worried about her math test tomorrow so she spends extra time reviewing the material so she gets a good grade.
These are examples of productive, healthy, and helpful anxiety.
But what happens when anxiety isn’t productive? What happens when it interferes in your child’s life instead of motivates her?
For example, your child is fearful of asking her teacher for help, and as result she’s falling behind in class and her grades are starting to drop.
Or during your child’s test her hands are shaking, she’s panicky, and her mind goes blank. She can’t answer any of the questions and fails the exam.
This is when anxiety is a problem. Your child is no longer able to control the worry. And it seems like the anxiety is there more often than not. It causes you to wonder….“Could my child have an anxiety disorder?”
5 Signs of an Anxiety Disorder
1.Feeling restless or on edge: Does she bite her nails, move around a lot, or bounce her legs? Maybe she paces the hallway at home? It’s like you can see your child’s anxiety.
Often times confused with a hyperactivity disorder, anxiety comes from the mind but is often manifested in the body. This is not because her body has a need to be hyperactive, it’s because her mind wants her to do something about the problem at hand, but for whatever reason she’s not able to.
For instance, maybe she’s thinking about confronting a person who’s been teasing her at school. Her mind is activating her in preparation for that encounter.
2.Difficulty concentrating: This is a big problem for school success, and is oftentimes confused with ADD/ADHD. If there are a lot of thoughts swirling around in your child’s brain, how is it possible to focus? It’s not that she CAN’T focus. In fact, she’s focusing really well—just not on the task at hand. She’s likely trying to sort out what’s on her mind.
If her parents argued the night before and she’s worried about them divorcing, she may have missed her teacher’s instruction on that important upcoming history test.
Maybe she’s worried about confronting a dramatic peer tomorrow at school–and as a result she misses your 4th directive to go wash the dishes.
3.Irritability: Seeing more opposition and defiance lately? If life doesn’t feel good (and chronic anxiety NEVER feels good) she’s going to have a hard time being on her best behavior. If your child interrupts you a lot, she may not be trying to be rude, she could just be anxious to get her point across and get the problem solved.
And if you think about it, when you’re chronically anxious, life can feel pretty miserable. Your child may be irritated and frustrated and she’s not meaning to take it out on you. It just certainly feels like it though!
4.Physiological symptoms: When the body is anxious it’s preparing for a possible “attack” and is planning on how to respond. This is commonly known as “flight or fight.” As a result of this response a number of physical effects can happen, including head aches, muscle tension, upset stomach, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath.
(Note: Of course, there can be a number of physical disorders that cause the same symptoms and I also recommend parents start first with a visit to your child’s medical provider to rule out organic causes.)
5.Sleep disturbances: Is your child having difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or having nightmares? An anxious mind is not a calm mind, which is what needs to happen for your child to sleep.
Think of your child’s brain as having an on switch and an off switch. In order to fall asleep she needs to be able to “go off line.” But the mean thing about anxiety is that it’s keeping her brain activated, so she stays up all night thinking negative thoughts, or wakes up after a nightmare and can’t switch the thoughts off once she’s awake, making it difficult to fall back asleep.
When does my child need professional help?
If anxiety is impairing your child’s functioning at school, impacting her grades, interfering with positive social relationships, affects quality of life at home, or is the result of trauma, your child may benefit from an assessment by a mental health professional.
What can be done about my child’s anxiety?
A mental health professional can help your child reduce the anxiety and improve your child’s quality of life. Your child will learn to:
Gain insight into why anxiety is occurring: Getting to the bottom of the issue is essential! Knowing the “why” helps with figuring out a treatment plan. For example: Is your child afraid of riding the school bus, or is she worried about meeting new people on the school bus? Seems like a small difference but the answer will help your child’s therapist determine which direction is best for treating your child.
Increase understanding of the anxious feelings: Therapy will help your child understand why her body has all those uncomfortable sensations, and where the feelings are coming from. This can help take some of the worry out of the anxiety.
Challenge the thinking that creates the anxiety: Thoughts affect feelings, which affect behavior. If your child can change the negative thoughts that feed the anxiety, she won’t feel as worried, and then she will start to improve whatever is being impacted.
Improve coping skills for dealing with the anxiety: Anxiety is a part of life so learning to cope with it is essential. Does your child know she can ask for help? That she can breathe to help calm down? Or say phrases that are soothing? These are just a few examples of coping skills your child can learn.
Bottom line: Anxiety in and of itself is a normal part of life. But it can grow into a problem and when your child has multiple signs and they persist–your child may have an anxiety disorder. Recognizing the signs early and intervening by getting your child help is the best way to address it.
If you feel like any of the above information resonates with you and you’re concerned about your child’s emotional well-being, functioning at home, or relationship with you, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help.
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health. Her proudest accomplishment is following her dream of opening up a practice that is designed to focus on the whole family. She currently serves families in Southern California.