anxious teen

Am I being protective or over protective?

This week’s question came from a parent who is trying to figure out how to support their anxious child and reached out to me with a more complex and personal version of the question, “am I being protective or over protective when I try to support my anxious child.”

Here’s the thing, one family’s protective is another family’s over protective because we can’t take a particular behavior out of the context of a particular family and say, “That is always right” or “that is always wrong.” 

Anxious children come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and developmental needs. Families, too, have different expectations and values. In one family, choosing to homeschool due to a child’s anxiety is overprotection and in another family it’s a great idea. So how do we know the difference for ourselves? Or at least how can we start figuring it out? 

Ok first we have to back up and remember what this whole parenting gig is all about and that’s raising humans to grow up and live their own best lives, right? That’s parenting in a nutshell. And we know, from just looking around us, that there are a whole lot of versions of best lives out there. So part of this parenting and growing up is figuring that out — what version? What are our children’s strengths that we can play to? What are their challenges that we can help them confront and overcome or learn to work with them? 

As they grow, we continuously reassess. Our children change, our values as a family sometimes change, and certainly circumstances can change. Any of that means we go back to the drawing board and say, “Is this still working? Are we still moving forward? Is my child still making progress however that’s meant to look?”

Back to protections, protect should protect; not limit. Overprotections limit. Overprotections keep kids stagnant and stuck whileProtections keep them safe and encourage growth. 

A general example would be making your typically developing preschooler hold your hand when you cross the street is protection. Making your typically developing 12-year old hold your hand when you cross the street is overprotection. That’s easy, right? That’s very clear. We know what to expect from preschoolers and we know what to expect from 12-year olds and we understand the mechanics of crossing the street.

Things get trickier when we’re talking about expectations that are more complicated or nuanced such as managing social media, or navigating romantic relationships, or figuring out how to deal with anxiety.

In cases like that, where it feels more complicated, I encourage you to step back and ask yourself these questions:

  • What are my goals for my child around this topic? 
  • What skills around this topic will they need when they’re adults? 
  • How can I help them to begin to build those skills now in ways that are developmentally appropriate?

If what we’re doing is not building those the skills that we know they need, then it might be overprotection. Remember, protections protect but leave room for skill building and over protection limits, it doesn’t find ways to give kids the opportunity to learn the skills they will need as adults.

This is so hard when we’ve got anxious kids who don’t want to learn those skills. Who are perfectly happy with you managing things for them. Again, step back and think about your child as an adult. Think about what they need now to get them there, to adulthood with the skills that they need whether they like it or not.

This doesn’t mean that you let an 8-year old fend for themselves when they’re scared anymore then you’d let a preschooler cross a busy street without teaching them how traffic works. But it does mean that at a certain point you’re going to ask them to do the things they need to do, knowing that you’ve given them the support and information that will allow them to do it.

For example, if you’ve got a 12 year old who reasonably knows how to cross the street but doesn’t want to, then you might insist. You might say something like, “I don’t have time to walk you to the ice cream shop to get you that milkshake so if you want to get a milkshake you’ll need to get there on your own.” And we’d say that with the full confidence that we’ve given them the knowledge and skills to accomplish that safely. 

They might be scared. They might insist they don’t know how to do it. But a milkshake might be just the incentive they need to find out they can.

When it comes to anxiety, we might need help drilling down to the small steps and small skills they need. We might need help understanding what’s protective and what’s over protective because some anxious kids are pretty dramatic. I don’t mean this in a dismissive way at all. I mean that their fight, flight or freeze is so big or so consuming that it’s hard for us to get perspective and know whether or not what we’re asking of them is reasonable. That’s all part of the planning and work of supporting and raising anxious kids.

If you are feeling stuck or your child is feeling stuck, know that this is part of the anxiety process. Feeling stuck just comes with the territory and usually means we need to stop and reassess what we’re doing and whether or not we’re off track in helping our child acquire those skills they’re going to need. If you need help with that. Let me know. 

Is my child manipulating me?

This week’s question is, “Is my child really anxious? Or are they just manipulating me?” This is one of the questions I ask in the Parenting Pitfalls quiz because it’s one way I assess for patterns of anxiety in a family — that is whether or not people tell you that your child is manipulating you or if you wonder if they’re manipulating you. So let’s talk about that a little bit.

First of all, when people use the word manipulation to talk about a child’s behavior, what I know for certain is that family is struggling. Manipulation is another word for “doing things to get what we want” but it’s a really negative word. The truth is, we all do things to get what we want. We may be extra nice to our boss even if we’re annoyed by them because we want to get a raise. Or we might pretend to like a book we dislike so that other people in our bookclub will think we’re smart. 

According to Kohlberg’s moral development, children tend to behave selfishly until around the age of 7. They are reward oriented — behaving in ways that serve them rather than because it’s the right thing to do and they are selfish — looking out for their own self interest rather than ways to serve others. Now I know you’re going to give me examples of your child’s selflessness at younger than seven. It’s not that they don’t do lovely things like give a toy to their sibling, or bring you flowers, or give up the last cookie because their friend is crying — it’s that they do those things because they want to. They want your praise, they want your approval, they want their friend to play instead of cry. This again, is developmentally appropriate. And we help them learn our moral code with that praise and approval. That’s part of the teaching we do. 

I’ll tell a story about my daughter here with her permission to illustrate this. When she was about five she figured out that if I said no to something like a popsicle just before dinner, she could get a popsicle by going to her dad and looking very sad and saying, “Gee, I sure wish I could have a popsicle” and he’d say, “Well, go have one then.” Of course she was manipulating him because she wasn’t telling him the whole truth by explaining why she didn’t have one. But that’s typical manipulation. She didn’t know that lying by omission was a thing. We had to tell her that. If anything she was showing some good problem solving and people skills. 

From 8 to 13, their moral code is still about meeting rules and getting praise. Kids want approval. They are growing into the idea that morality can be more personal and that the greater good may sometimes mean they will miss out but they definitely haven’t mastered it. Heck, we adults struggle with this so of course we can expect children to still be learning and exploring what it means to behave in a moral manner.

Back to manipulation. Manipulation, as in manipulating people to get your own way, isn’t a moral issue for kids the way it is for us. A child who is anxious and who is avoiding through fight or flight or freeze, is definitely trying to get their own way. If they don’t want to do the scary thing like sleep alone, or talk in class, or go to the baseball game then they may meltdown, cry they may threaten to hurt themselves, they may punch someone or punch a wall and then parents often give in. Is the child being manipulative? Is the child really that scared? That in danger? Or are they pretending to be to get their way?

My take is it kind of doesn’t matter. We need to take threats seriously, always, especially when there is threat of harm. They might be exaggerating their threats but exaggerated threats have resulted in real harm when we don’t take them seriously. They are trying to get us to take their fears seriously and yes, they may blow those fears up so that we will. 

That doesn’t mean we help them avoid. It may mean we need to start smaller in addressing their anxiety because the big stuff is too big at the moment. Or it may mean that we need to create a plan that keeps kids and other people and things safe even as we continue to challenge their avoidance. (I will add that when a child blows up their fears so we take it seriously, they are also blowing those fears up for themselves. I don’t know how many of you read Anne of Green Gables. But there’s a chapter where she’s imagined a haunted forest and she’s done such a good job of imagining it that she is terrified to walk through the woods. Her imagination has run away with her. Our anxious kids do this, too. And sometimes that manipulative behavior may raise things to another level not just for us but for them.)

So I guess what I’m saying is that the question isn’t helpful because a child can be both anxious and manipulative and being manipulative doesn’t mean that your child’s struggle isn’t real.

When things get to this level of crisis, it’s time to get help. This is just such a difficult place to be as a parent and as the child or teen whose behaviors have become so damaging. 

If you’re curious where your family falls in the Parenting Pitfall quiz, which is about the family patterns that keeps us stuck in child or teen anxiety, I’d love for you to come by the site and take the quiz. If you have questions about your results, let me know. You’ll also have the opportunity to sign up for the free Get Yourself Grounded email course when you complete the quiz but you don’t have to fill anything out — like your name or email — just to take it or to get the results. 

Is it ok if I miss school because of anxiety?

This is  from a message I received on the podcast page from a young teen, facing down the start of school and feeling overwhelmed. I don’t have more info from this person about their anxiety like how it started or the shape of it or how they’ve dealt with it so far. I do know that they’re going to be a sophomore this upcoming year and that they are looking for support to tell their parents that it’s ok for them to take a break when they need it.

First, young friend, I’m sorry that you’re struggling. I also struggled with going to school at around your age and used to beg my mom to let me stay home. I want you to know that I hear you and I support you in figuring this out. I hope that you will continue to talk to your parents and I encourage you to think about getting counseling. If your parents aren’t willing or able to help you connect with a counselor, I hope you will reach out to your guidance counselor at school. And if that doesn’t feel accessible or appropriate to you, there are lots of great workbooks about anxiety and you can look on Amazon at reviews or go to the library to check them out. 

The important thing for you to know is that ultimately anxiety needs to be faced. I don’t mean in a pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of way or a tough love kind of way, I mean that the cure for anxiety is learning to deal with your anxiety. That’s the crux of it. How you do that is very personal and doesn’t need to be all or nothing. Just hold it in your mind that facing your anxiety is going to ultimately help and then you can think about how best to do it.

Some of us face anxiety in the same way we get into a cold pool — we just jump right in. We let ourselves get kind of smacked in the face with the discomfort and hang in there until we acclimate. 

That is not me. That’s not generally how I do it. I’m a slow to warm person and when I get in a pool, I get in at the shallow end and creep my way towards the deep end slowly, slowly getting used to the water until it feels comfortable.

Both ways are totally legit. Both ways end up with us fully in the pool. So you get to think about the way you want to acclimate to anxiety. Most of us who are anxious are shallow end people. Our anxiety is so big and can feel so overwhelming that we need to start small. That’s just fine.

Which leads me to school. Again, I don’t know the details of your specific anxiety experience so I’m going to take about school refusal in a general way and I hope that you can make sense of it in the context of your unique experience.

Generally school refusal in the teen years is about social anxiety. For me there was some of that and also just a general disillusionment about school. It was hard to feel motivated to go when I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it. Looking back, I wish I had reached out to the guidance counselor more and talked to them about what I needed to see if they could help me figure it out. That’s why I mention that as a first step. 

But the social anxiety piece, that was complicated by some bullying I experienced in seventh and eighth grade that colored the way I saw my peers. That may be part of your experience, too, and if so my heart goes out to you. I want you to hear and to know that school is NOT representative of the so-called real world it’s preparing you for. School is school. Yes, there may always be mean people you’ll have to deal with but you’ll have more freedom to figure out HOW you want to deal with it when you’re an adult. OK? It really does get better and the people who say that your teen years are the best years of your life, well, I feel bad for them because their best years are behind them. For most of us, the teen years are tough years and life gets better as we get older. Truly. I’m telling you being a grown up isn’t as scary as you might think and actually is a lot of fun.

All right, back to anxiety. 

Here’s the deal about missing school because of anxiety. When we avoid things because we are anxious about them, we are rewarding that avoidance so it gets harder and harder to face the scary thing. Avoidance begets avoidance. So I’m not able to advocate that as a coping mechanism.

That said, we can also consider what school is offering you. School is about academics and it’s about socializing. If a particular school experience is a poor fit for someone and that’s causing anxiety — like if the bullying is making school unsafe or a child or teen has learning needs that aren’t being addressed by the school — then pulling that person from school might make sense IF we have a plan for academics and socializing.

In other words, I wouldn’t recommend that a child or teen leave school to do fully online school alone at home without any social opportunities. And I do mean face-to-face opportunities, not just online ones.

Being online is fine, having online friends is great, but we all need the practice of socializing in real life.

We need to figure out how to manage social expectations around eye contact and back and forth conversation. That’s not to say that there is just one way to do that. I often talk to families whose children are neurodiverse and their needs are different and that’s fine. An autistic person shouldn’t be forced to mask but they do need to figure out how they want to support themselves while navigating social life. Like do they want to mask, do they want to work on specific social skills, do they want to figure out how to find a community that doesn’t demand this of them. Which is to say learning how and if you want to fit into the mainstream world is part of the job of growing up but also finding the places in the world that loves and accepts you is important, too. And those places do exist. 

For example, sometimes when I’m working with families, we’re talking about ways to find a social support system for their child that will let their child be exactly who they are without demanding that they be different. There are spaces like this. They can be harder to find especially for people who live in small communities, but they’re out there. 

Some of us do best with a wide circle of friends but lots of us are happy to have one or two people who really get us and can support us. That might mean finding a tutor who understands how we learn and can help us work with our skills and talents. That might mean finding a mentor who shares our passion for a specific hobby or topic. 

If leaving school doesn’t make sense or truly isn’t available and you’re going to have to go, I still think looking outside of school for pro-social opportunities can help us deal with the social demands of school. It’s not as painful to eat alone in the cafeteria if we know that after school we’re going to go to the library and hang with our D&D group or go to choir practice or whatever activity where we can remember that school is not the end all and be all of our experience.

I know that’s big work and we’re talking about the day to day coping in going to school when you are anxious and would rather stay home. 

Remember the metaphor of the pool. Think about ways to take baby steps. Again, your guidance counselor can be a help here. I hope they are. And parents can be advocates. And if you have one teacher who seems to get you, reach out to them. Back to baby steps. What do you need to get through your day at school. If you painted your ideal day at school — acknowledging that you’d rather not be at school but let’s just paint your ideal day there — what would help? Is it breaks? Is it being able to listen to your music sometimes? Is it being allowed to wear sunglasses or your hood up? Is there a particular class that is more challenging? Mapping our your day may help you come up with some specific coping tools to ease you into that cold swimming pool. 

But full on avoidance isn’t it. Basically you’re going to need to think about how to face your anxiety as best you can. 

I wish I could give you more specific advice but obviously that’s beyond the scope of a podcast so I hope that I’ve given you some places to start and some ideas. I’m thinking of you and know that other members of the listening audience are thinking of you, too. 

If you need crisis support, please call 988 for local resources and help.

Is failure to launch caused by anxiety?

First let’s talk about what failure to launch is. What do we mean when we use that term? Failure to launch is generally used to describe a young adult child who is struggling with the transition to adulthood.

Maybe they’re struggling to get a job, to get their own housing. Maybe they meant to enroll in school and haven’t been able to or have dropped out. Sometimes parents talk about their adult children who have difficult connecting with people their own age or out in the quote real world. Perhaps they aren’t keeping up with their responsibilities at home like cooking for themselves or their family or cleaning up after themselves.

But failure to launch in itself isn’t a diagnosis. It’s more of a cultural description about our social expectations for older teens and young adults and the way that some individuals struggle with these expectations.

And speaking of culture, failure to launch only exists in the context of these expectations. Some families may expect adult children to live at home for some time. Some parents may have different goals for their adult children. But when I hear parents use that term — failure to launch — I understand what they’re describing is their family’s frustration and worry about that adult child’s functioning. And that adult child may share that worry or may not.

So why might an adult child struggle in this way?

Well, we need to acknowledge that there are factors outside of the individual that may create these problems. For example, it’s a lot more difficult to move out on your own then when I was a young adult. Back then minimum wage in Ohio was $3.35 and my share of the rent was $187.50. Now minimum wage here is $9.30 but if I lived in that apartment today my share of the rent would be around $1200. Which is to say it was much easier to launch in the past. So let’s definitely acknowledge that.

Now back to the original question, is failure to launch caused by anxiety? And the answer is maybe. Sure, sometimes. Or anxiety may play a part. Like all things, it’s complicated.

But let’s talk about anxiety, specifically young adult anxiety that keeps that person feeling trapped at home longer than they want or perhaps longer than their parents want. Yes, that’s a thing. Absolutely. And it deserves care and attention.

One of the reasons I don’t like the term “failure to launch” is because of its emphasis on FAILURE. And my experience in working with those families is that everyone is already feeling overwhelmed with the idea of failure. Parents are dealing with criticism — why haven’t you kicked that kid out of there already? Why are you holding them back? And certainly the young adults themselves are facing their own sense of failure in not accessing whatever it is they believe they should be able to access by now. Failure just isn’t really a helpful way to frame it. Instead, like all developmental challenges in growing up, we can consider where and how people are getting stuck. 

If we’re talking about anxiety specifically, the idea of failure is going to make everyone much more anxious. I think it’s more helpful to talk about lagging skills. That is to say, that the adult child is needing to work on and improve specific skills that will help them move on and launch. 

We’ve said before that anxiety is about avoidance and it’s also about dread. I hear more and more and more from older teens who have very real dread about the future. And it’s no wonder if you glance at the news. They’re worried about being able to handle the demands and some of them become so overwhelmed that they freeze. That’s anxiety. What they need from us is help to face those fears, tolerate the distress of stepping out of their comfort zone, and adults who believe in them.

As parents, when children — even adult children — are struggling or have struggled or have faced very real challenges and setbacks, it’s hard not to steel ourselves for more of that. We may unintentionally send a message that they are not prepared to handle the quote “real world” end quote. We may do this by rescuing them or by second guessing their choices when they do make an attempt to reach out. We may try to take charge by calling their bosses or college instructors or making ourselves necessary when really we’re supposed to be making ourselves obsolete. 

These are hard lessons for parents. Again, with anxiety, it makes sense that we fall into these parenting pitfalls where we mean to help and instead perpetuate the anxiety. If we do too much caretaking, too much interfering, too much helping we end up sending the message that they can’t handle things on their own.

What I’ve heard some parents say when we talk about this is, But what if they CAN’T handle things on their own. What if they really can’t? Well, then we work on creating baby steps to move them forward and to put ourselves out of a job. It’s not an easy 1 – 2 – 3 kind of plan. It’s a tricky, sticky, deeply individualized plan.

I’d recommend that the adult child get their own counseling and that the parents get education and support, too, separately but complementary. The adult child has their own work to do but the parents will need to learn and understand how they can best support them in reaching their goals. If the adult child is unwilling to get counseling, the parents can still do their part and get their own help.

The SPACE program, which Child Anxiety Support is partially based on, has been shown to be effective in helping families who are struggling with launching. You can see what I have to offer or go to to find other practitioners doing this work.

Is social anxiety disorder caused by traumas and bullying?

First let’s talk about what social anxiety is and how it’s diagnosed.

Social anxiety is not being introverted and it’s not being shy. Social anxiety is when a child struggles to function in social situations. An introvert may prefer their own company and a child who is shy is a child who is slow to warm up in social situations but they’re able to get there. In social anxiety, the child’s anxiety prevents them from participation. 

There are two aspects to social anxiety. The first is what you might call stage fright where the child’s anxiety is centered around the fear of performance. This isn’t just being afraid of being on stage or public speaking, this is fear of raising their hand in school or ordering at a restaurant or answering the phone or being at an event where they will be seen. The focus here is on the performative aspect of being observed. Most of us don’t want to be the first person on the dance floor, right? Perhaps you can imagine how that feels. The stage fright part of social anxiety is that feeling — that feeling of being first on the dance floor — in any aspect of social performance. So these kids might have trouble getting up in class to sharpen a pencil. They may have bathroom accidents because they can’t ask the teacher to be excused. They might struggle in sports of gym class because they have to practice in front of their classmates or team members. You know, like when your coach lines you up and you take turns running up to kick the soccer ball into the goal. 

The second aspect to social anxiety is about the interaction. This can be present with the performative aspect or may show up on its own. In this case, there is intense worry about disappointing other people or making people mad or having people judge them. They may have trouble making eye contact (and this is separate from children who are on the autism spectrum — social anxiety is often co-diagnosed with spectrum disorders but lack of eye contact is not always an indicator of social anxiety). We all have had those middle of the night worries about having said something stupid after a social event. Most of us can shrug it off; we know people are forgiving and also most people aren’t paying that close of attention to us. But when social anxiety is present, those ruminations about possible social gaffes can be overwhelming. 

Kids with social anxiety fear negative judgment. Their avoidance is around this perceived negative judgment. To avoid it they may limit their socializing or withdraw from social interactions, basically going along to get along. 

In severe cases of social anxiety, the child might also meet criteria for a diagnosis of selective mutism where the child’s anxiety is so great that they are unable to speak to people outside of a select few, usually family members. The child is able to speak — they have no physical limitations — but their fear stops them from speaking.

Our children may ask us to reassure them that no one is mad. They may need to process the event over and over. They may apologize for perceived slights or insults, taking responsibility for things that aren’t an issue.

As an aside, I see so much of this in middle schoolers — such a socially anxious age — where conversation between two kids may halt entirely because they are both so caught up in apologizing for each other. Of course middle schoolers can also be incredibly thoughtless and cruel to each other. It’s a complicated age and the same child who is ultra sensitive in one social context may be clueless in another. There are estimates that up to 30% of adolescents experience some measure of social anxiety — I think it might be under diagnosed since I meet lots of adults who don’t realize that they have social anxiety but instead report that they are just very introverted. 

Which brings us to the original question. Is social anxiety disorder caused by trauma and bullying? The answer is yes, it may be but it isn’t always. 

Some children have a difficult experience in school and this contributes to their understandable fear of continued bullying and unkindness, i.e., social anxiety.

Other children develop social anxiety without a clear precursor. Although there is research showing that children who have separation anxiety when younger — that is struggle to separate from caregivers for longer than is developmentally expected — are more likely to develop social anxiety. 

Interestingly some children with social anxiety who do not have bullying in their background may still perceive some of their social interactions more negatively than they actually were. This is not because they are liars; it is because some children are more sensitive to negative reactions — real or perceived. What this means is that a child may tell you that someone doesn’t like them and even have examples but this is more about their perception than what really happened. So another child might casually say, “Wow, your shoes are really bright blue.” And the child may hear that as critical or mean when the other child was simply making an observation.

All right, so what do you do for a child with social anxiety? 

Remember that anxiety gets worse with avoidance so we want to encourage those children to have more social interaction. Now this doesn’t mean just sending them off to school and saying, “go make some friends!” That’s not going to work for every child. For some? Sure. Kids who are more motivated, who have already built some emotional muscle in overcoming social anxiety, who have some measure of social support — they may be able to simply push through it. But lots of kids need help with skills building.

You can reach out to the school counselor and ask them about social opportunities. Some will have groups — a lunch bunch or a more formal group — that the child can attend. Some may have ideas about getting the child more involved with extracurriculars that interest them and might feel safe. They may be able to connect the child with appropriate peers.

You can also look for social opportunities that are a better fit for your child. Girl Scouts, a church group, 4H. If your child has a special interest you could see about connecting them to peers that way. If you’ve got a child or teen who does a lot of online activities, head to the local comic book store and see if you can get your gamer nerd to open themselves to other nerdoms like D&D or Magic the Gathering. Our little neighborhood library used to host gamer meet-ups to get the kids off-line and talking to each other while still honoring that gaming was an important interest to them. You can try that, too. 

The reason I bring up computer games, is that kids who are social anxious are more likely to have what the researchers call problematic internet usage. That is to say, avoiding real world social interaction by increased used of online social interaction.

I do want to pause here and say that I believe that online relationships are real and important and they matter. But they are not a substitute for real world relationships. It’s great to have good social keyboarding skills. But we also need to be able to interact with people off-line. It doesn’t need to be one or the other and we can encourage real world friendships without denigrating online friendships. This is important when we’re talking about supporting our kids since many will feel rightfully defensive if we turn it into an either/or discussion instead of a both/and. 

If you can’t find the right social environment, you could consider creating one. Social media makes it easier to network with other local parents and perhaps you can find or create the social group that would feel welcoming to your child. It doesn’t have to be a large group. It can just be a couple of kids who are willing to hang out.

You can also talk to counseling practices and occupational therapy practices, which sometimes host social skills groups. Sometimes these are specific to a diagnosis — for example, for autistic kids. But some are open to any child who is needing opportunity and practice in learning how be with other kids. The leaders of these kinds of structured groups know and expect that the kids may be awkward and may struggle. Talk to the facilitators and see if your child is a good fit for the group and that the group is a good fit for the child. Some of the will organize around a particular theme. 

Getting intervention sooner rather than later is important. Sometimes we figure middle school is just awkward and they’ll grow out of it but social anxiety leads to depression if it continues through the teen years. Social anxiety tends to create dependence as children increasingly rely on their parents’ support and intervention. Parents naturally start assuming their kids can’t function on their own, which leads to more parental control, which leads to greater social anxiety. It’s basically an echo chamber. As in all things, parents need to recognize when what they’re doing is hurting more than helping — always a tricky thing with anxiety — and learn to step back.

If you need help with that, I encourage you to check out my program.

Why do gifted children have anxiety disorders?

Why do gifted children have anxiety disorders?

gifted children

Why do gifted children have anxiety disorders?

gifted children

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Are you ready to bring calm to yourself so that you can bring calm to your family? Subscribe to my newsletter and you’ll get my FREE 7-day Get Yourself Grounded course!

What are some signs that a child has anxiety?

Our first question for the Child Anxiety FAQ podcast is, “What are some signs that a child has anxiety?” I think what this questioner is asking is how we can tell if a child is having a problem with anxiety because we’re all going to suffer from anxiety.

When I first started offering trainings, I definitely suffered from anxiety before every single presentation. Shaking, sweating, lots of worrying about things that could go wrong. In that case, my anxiety was productive because it made me prepare for those trainings, you know, and inspired me to plan ahead, plan for disaster. I’d print out two copies of my notes and I’d practice and time my PowerPoint. I’d pack extra connectors for my laptop because it seemed like the hotels were I’d present never had the right one for my Mac.

By the same token, a child who is worried about doing well on an exam is more likely to study for it than a child who is not worried about doing well.

Being alive means we’re going to have anxiety and we can’t protect our children from that. Right? So the question is, how do we know if that anxiety is a problem.

So first, the most important way to know is if that worrying is trapping the child. So in my presenting if I was worried about presenting so much that I refuse to do it or canceled at the very last minute or couldn’t go on because my nausea was so bad that I was enabled to take the stage. That would be an indicator that my anxiety was no longer productive.

A child who is so worried about their exam, that their relationships or their functioning are disrupted in some way is by definition having problems with anxiety.

How does anxiety disrupt things? Well, let’s look at that. Maybe there are sematic symptoms and this is often the reason why people contact me is their child is having somatic symptoms like stomach.

Butterflies in their stomach, a pain in their stomach. Maybe they’re asking their parents to come pick them up from school because they’re getting stomach aches at school. They’re going to the nurse’s office. Maybe they have difficulty eating because their stomach is bothering them. Maybe they’re having a lot of headaches.

Uh, maybe you’ve had them to get their eyes checked and their eyes are fine. And yet they’re still having. Maybe they’re having a lot of bathroom accidents. It’s really common to need to go pee or poop when you’re very, very anxious and maybe their wedding, their pants. Maybe there are behavioral symptoms and that’s the other most common reason.

These are the two most common reasons why people contact me either their child was having somatic symptoms and the pediatrician says this might be anxiety, or the child is having behavioral symptoms. And the behavioral symptoms that we’re looking for are ones that are outside. What is developmentally appropriate and what is culturally.

So let’s dig into that little bit. So developmentally we would expect a toddler to have separation anxiety. We would expect a three-year-old to maybe struggle getting dropped off at preschool, at least at the beginning. But if that continues for longer than. Let’s say three to six months depending, or if they’re eight and having trouble separating that tells us that’s outside of what is developmentally expected for that child as for culturally appropriate?

Well, a lot of people point to, uh, my child won’t sleep alone and that might be an issue for your family, but for another family that would not be an issue in many family cultures. It is not reasonable for a child to sleep alone. And so we can’t. This behavior always means anxiety. It’s an issue if it’s an issue for your family.

So if you were needing your child to sleep alone or that’s important to you, and they’re unable to do that, it, it might make sense to look into anxiety. Now, the other behavioral issues that we see in anxious, kids are Melton. So falling apart before or after school for the child who is struggling with school refusal, a child who melts down before or after visitors or playdates, many, many, many families tell me that my kid does great at school.

They do great with other people and then they come home and they are just a mess. Those are the kinds of meltdowns that we see in anxious, kids who are holding it together for as long as they can, and then coming home and unleashing it on the family. Many anxious kids are also very rigid for some kids.

This is a personality trait, uh, a child who has a preference. They like things to be this way is different than a child. Who’s rigidity is a necessity. So the child who might whine a little bit because their shoes aren’t fitting right, or their brother or sister did something out of order or. Something out of order versus the kid who completely falls apart.

So for example, you show up to pick them up in a car they’re not accustomed to, and they can barely get in the car or they scream and cry the whole way home, that kind of rigidity. And in older kids, perfectionism is often a sign of anxiety. And of course the child may say, I feel anxious. I’m afraid I’m worried.

Or they might not have the language for it. And instead you just see a lot of reluctance or they are verbalized in a lot of reluctance. I don’t like that. I don’t want to go. They don’t always have the language to explain their feelings, but if they’re often resistant to new things or even accustomed things it’s worth considering whether or not this is anxiety.

And remember we said developmentally or culturally appropriate. So if you have a child who doesn’t want to jump on a trampoline, but you’re not a trampoline jumping family, that’s not a big deal. If on the other hand, you’re the flying Melendez and jumping on a trampoline needs to happen. Well, maybe you need.

Dig in a little bit and see why that child is resistant. It’s complicated. Right? So remember when I said that one way we know when a child or teen is having anxiety issues is if the relationships are disrupted, I want to talk about that a little bit, because that includes their relationship with you and other families.

Now it’s certain times in their development, it is normal and expected for us to be knocking heads with our children. So how do we know when it’s beyond what is developmentally appropriate? How do we know when our arguments with our 13 year old are appropriate for a child who is at the stage where they’re learning to separate and how do we know when something bigger is going on. Well, the biggest indicator is you. If you feel stuck, if you are feeling ground down by the relationship, if you feel trapped in it or start to dread spending time with them. If you are so worried that your functioning is disrupted, if you’re being interrupted at work or when you’re out, if you are getting repeated phone calls or texts, when you’re grocery shopping, if your world has started to get smaller, because you’re trying to manage your children, child’s react.

If you feel like you’re walking on eggshells, worried that you’ll set them off by bringing up the wrong topic, asking them to do the wrong thing, then that’s a sign that anxiety may be an issue for your family. So often I’m talking to parents who think that they are doing something wrong because they’re feeling unhappy in their parenting.

They feel guilty. They often feel ashamed. Let me tell you something. When you don’t feel good in your relationship with your child, that’s a symptom and symptoms are useful because in symptoms we find answers. If you are struggling, that doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong, but it does mean that there is something that might need to change.

Parenting is not stagnant. You grow up. Your child grows, your circumstances change and what might have worked before may no longer work. The only way we know that is when we start struggling or a child starts struggling. It’s like when your back starts to hurt, because you need a new. When your relationship is hurting, you might need a new approach.

My experience has been that parents often hold back from getting help because they think that they just need to try harder, be more patient, do more. They blame themselves a lot. When it comes to child anxiety, a new perspective makes a big difference. It really, really helps to have someone from outside.

Looking in to help you figure out what’s happening and support you in figuring out how to extricate yourself from the patterns that are making your child more anxious or keeping them and you stuck. All right. So let’s go back and look over our answer to know how do you know if your child has anxiety?

So one sematic symptoms, stomach aches, headaches, et cetera, behavioral symptoms, meltdowns, rigidity, uh, Lots of arguments. Uh, if they tell you that they’re having a hard time, you can believe them. And what I think most importantly, if you are having a hard time with them.


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