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10 Signs Your Child Might Have Anxiety

Some one in eight children suffers from anxiety and it can easily come across as bad behavior. These warning signs suggest that anxiety could be to blame.

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Assuming the worst

Whether it’s earning a bad grade in school or losing a sporting event, children with anxiety often cope by setting themselves up for the worst case scenario instead of hoping for the best in order to avoid disappointment. Don’t let your own frustration show; check out these tips for never letting stress affect your kids.

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Eating radically differently

Much like adults, a child’s appetite is connected to his emotions. Children with anxiety may develop sudden aversions to foods they previously enjoyed or become overly picky about their meals. Children with anxiety may also wish to eat in secret, which helps them exert control over their food choices and eating habits. (Related: Just saying no to green foods? Here’s what happens to your body when you don’t eat fruits and vegetables.)

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Complaining of symptoms

Children often experience physical manifestations of their anxiety. Headaches, upset stomach, and even muscle pain are some of the ways in which anxiety can interfere with their lives, causing them to miss school or extracurricular activities. Physical anxiety symptoms often present themselves when children cannot communicate their fears. You may become frustrated, thinking your child is faking illness, when in fact, the anxiety underlying the symptom is very real.

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Throwing tantrums

When children are young and pre-verbal, they throw tantrums. The same thing can happen to older children with anxiety who can communicate generally but lack the vocabulary they need to express these rather complex emotions. (Related: If verbal communication is a consistent difficulty, check these signs that your child could be on the autism spectrum.)

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Globalizing problems

Phrases such as “I never do anything right” or “Why am I always so bad” are examples of the exaggerated negative thoughts of children with anxiety. What may seem like histrionics or dramatics to parents can be a sign of anxiety in children. Much like pessimism, frustration with themselves can lead children to make these global “never” and “always” statements. You may be tempted to dismiss them as exaggerations, but instead, use them as conversation starters to help kids explore what may be behind these broad statements. Here’s how to help stop the incredible damage from negative self-talk.

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Getting physical for no reason

Anxiety in children can often appear as aggressive behavior, whether they break their own stuff in frustration, tear up homework, or lash out at siblings, friends, or even adults. A clue that anxiety is behind the aggression is that afterward, children are often unable to explain why they did it. All behavior is communication, however, so while aggression may not be excusable, it sends a clear SOS that there’s a problem. Experiment with these magic phrases that instantly calm anxiety.

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Being a perfectionist

When children are anxious, they often hyper-focus on making everything perfect, whether it’s a homework project, a dance routine or a clean room. They often view their actions in black and white—it’s either perfect and right, or it’s wrong. Anxiety can dissuade them from trying new things, because they know it won’t be perfect the first time. Instead of dismissing these extremes, try teaching your child some positive statements about her work, such as “I did my best” or “I’m working hard and getting better.” Watch out for these clear signs of perfectionism.

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Trouble sleeping

Much like adults, when an anxious child lies down to sleep, his mind can race with worry. This is the quietest part of the day, and suddenly your child is left alone with only his thoughts. In these silent moments, an anxious child’s fears about the next day can keep him from getting the rest he needs. If your child has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, anxiety may be causing it.

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Constantly fretting about the future

It’s impossible to know what the future holds, and though some people find that exciting, it can prove paralyzing for those with anxiety, especially children, who already feel like much of what happens in the world is out of their control. For them, worrying about the future is debilitating, especially if they know people who’ve suffered misfortunes, like they got lost for hours in a shopping mall or their dog got hit by a car. This can lead to fearing the same will happen to them. It’s tricky because you can’t guarantee it won’t happen, but you can allow them space to express their fears and offer contingency plans to make them feel safer.

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Not wanting to leave your side

Toddlers get separation anxiety at around 18 months, when they’ll they scream and cry any time their parent leaves for even a second. Children experiencing anxiety can react in similar ways, terrified to be separated from their parents who keep them safe and comforted. This can interfere with work, school, and even social activities. If your child’s desire to cling to you is negatively affecting her daily routine, look to anxiety as a possible cause. Anxiety can be emotionally draining and frustrating for both a child and her parents, so seek out the services of a mental health professional who can help restore balance in your child’s emotions. In the meantime, adopt the secrets that keep families happy.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest