What Is Anxiety and How Does It Look in Kids?

We all feel anxious sometimes, and that’s completely normal. Licensed therapist, with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life, Jody Baumstein, LCSW, wants to remind parents that, “Sometimes anxiety can actually be helpful. It helps us meet deadlines. It helps us get up in the morning and go to work. But for some people, their anxiety can become so problematic that it gets in the way of daily life.”

If you have any reason to believe your child is suffering from anxiety that is negatively impacting their life, it’s important to know the signs and to get help.

What is anxiety and when is it a problem?

At the most basic level, anxiety is a feeling of worry or nervousness. Many researchers believe that anxiety is genetic, but environmental factors can also contribute to our anxiety. Therefore, if you have an anxious parent, you’re more likely to be anxious, but that doesn’t mean you will be (or that you can’t work through it if you are).

Different people can experience anxiety in different ways and for different reasons. One child may be suffering from academic anxiety, causing them to worry excessively about their grades or even make themself sick to their stomach with nerves. Meanwhile, another child may be scared to go to sleep at night because they're afraid they won’t wake up.

While some anxiety is completely normal (and expected), pay special attention if your child’s stress and worrying gets in the way of everyday activity. Licensed therapist Erin Harlow-Parker, APRN, says, “Everybody experiences anxiety and worries in their lives. But it becomes a diagnosis of a disorder when it gets in the way of functioning. It’s normal to have an anxious response to a stressful event going on in your life, but when it takes over, and your child is not able to go to school, or socialize with friends, or finish a task or school project, that is when it becomes problematic … and in need of intervention.”

Signs of anxiety in kids

General anxiety shows up in children and teens in a variety of ways. For some kids, anxiety is about feeling safe. For others, something as simple as reading out loud in class can cause stress and anxiety.

Common signs of anxiety:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Shortness of breath or a dizzy feeling
  • Persistent sweating (even when it’s not hot)
  • Easily brought to tears
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling “revved up” or on edge
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep

Anxiety disorder—which is different and more severe than general anxiety—is a very intense, persistent feeling of worry. This can create what Harlow-Parker calls “catastrophic thinking.” She adds, “A child may have a fear of something going wrong, and then their mind goes to the absolutely worst-case scenario, which is highly unlikely to occur.” With an anxiety disorder, kids may actively work to avoid situations that cause stress. But there are things you can do to help.

Being on the lookout for signs of anxiety

Pay attention to the situations in your child’s life that can create stress, and look for symptoms that might seem completely unrelated. Headaches and stomach aches often have an underlying connection to stress. When there’s a pattern, like stomach aches on Sunday nights or on the night before a particular class or special event, that might be a sign of anxiety.

It is also important to know that some other behavior, which seems totally unrelated, may be connected to anxiety. Baumstein explains, “Defiance—not doing what a child should do, like homework or practicing piano—can be misunderstood as a child just being difficult. Your child may be anxious about the outcome, so they don’t start a project. Sometimes, what looks like procrastination or bad behavior on the surface may actually be anxiety.”

Tips to help a child dealing with anxiety

The good news about anxiety is that it’s treatable and often curable. Here are some things you can do to help.

  • Be proactive. Teach your child early on how to manage stress. Harlow-Parker says, “Incorporate daily coping strategies into your child’s everyday life, the same way you do with brushing your teeth.” This includes getting enough sleep, being active and using techniques that can create a better sense of calm and control.
  • Try gradual exposure. For example, Baumstein suggests, “If a child is scared of dogs, you wouldn’t put them in front of 3 dogs and expect them to handle it well. You might show your child a picture of a dog, and then a video of a dog. And then maybe go to a dog park and walk around the fence. This way, you’re gradually showing them they can get closer to the cause of their fear, and that it’s OK. Then, when they're ready, you’d lead up to them actually petting a friendly dog.”
  • Help your child manage their anxiety without avoiding it. Try to understand the very real feelings your child is having, but don’t avoid difficult situations. Baumstein advises, “Even though you want to save your child from their stress, the only way to get them over it is to help them experience it and get through it. Avoidance is the exact opposite of what you should to do. If your child fears storms and a big storm happens while they're at school, don’t run to pick them up. That actually teaches them to avoid challenges and can increase the anxiety.”
  • Regroup. Harlow-Parker says, “It’s important to discuss a stressful event afterwards and ask, ‘How did it feel to work through that?’ Even if it was horrible, you can say, ‘You did it!’”
  • Be a positive role model. For example, says Baumstein, “If a parent panics easily, that can rub off on the child. Say a parent with a severe fear of flying is constantly checking the weather at the airport or is panicking before takeoff. It’s not a surprise the child is going to feel some of that anxiety too. The parent’s behavior is telling the child, “You should be worried.” Even if the parent is not saying it, their behavior is. It’s not the parent’s fault; parents have feelings too. It’s important to try to be aware of how you feel, contain it or use it as an opportunity to talk about it with your child.

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Download a list of coping skills.
Download a deep breathing tip sheet.
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Getting help

While dealing with anxiety can be challenging, it is manageable. If you suspect your child’s anxiety is getting in the way of their daily life, don’t hesitate to get professional help.

You don’t have to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder (or experience something traumatic) to see a mental health professional. Therapy can be a wonderful and safe outlet for kids, even when things are going well.