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.