7 signs your kid is struggling with anxiety, according to psychology

Childhood is supposed to be a time of innocence, learning and adventure:

But for far too many youngsters, childhood and preteen years are a time of intense anxiety, dread and obsessive fears. This can cross the line from normal wear and tear to real psychological disorder. 

This problem has been growing significantly, especially post-pandemic, and is something that families should keep in mind when their kids seem to be struggling.

As the American Psychological Association notes:

“About 11.6% of kids had anxiety in 2012, up 20% from 2007. But during the pandemic, those numbers nearly doubled, such that 20.5% of youth worldwide now struggle with anxiety symptoms.”

So how can you know as a parent if your kid is suffering from serious anxiety? 

Let’s take a look: 

1) They start becoming emotionally withdrawn and stressed

Anxiety typically starts appearing as a serious mental health concern in adolescence or late childhood, in late elementary school or middle school. 

You may notice your child becoming increasingly withdrawn, with a fading interest in former activities, sports and friendships. 

They shut their door and become unresponsive about how their day was, often seeming agitated, irritable and jumpy. 

As Professor Elana Bernstein of the University of Dayton’s School of Psychology says:

“Most mental health problems, but particularly anxiety emerge, typically in those early kind of mid or elementary school years.”

2) They begin avoiding specific people or places 

Kids who are suffering from anxiety often have specific traumatic triggers or experiences which set them off. 

For example, they may have an intense fear of being disliked emanating from bullying, and as a result they become intensely socially anxious and start avoiding any social situations. 

They stop going to any birthday parties and invitations, even from friends who are kind to them, and begin self-isolating in a downward spiral. 

As Dr. Roy Boorady, MD of the Child Mind Institute points out

“Kids with untreated anxiety also begin to develop poor coping skills. A common example is avoidance—people who are very anxious will try to contain it by avoiding the thing that makes them anxious.”

3) They start fearing uncertainty and obsessing over ‘what ifs’

When digging deeper into what’s bothering your child, anxiety will often produce a pattern of obsessive worries

Your child, if he or she opens up, will often be engaging in “catastrophizing” or worst-case-scenario speculations. 

They are thinking about what they’d do if you died in an accident. They’re obsessed about the chances of catching a rare bacterial disease. 

They’re fixated on whether or not they’re good looking and convinced everyone finds them ugly and they’ll never get a girlfriend or boyfriend. 

Is this just normal preteen and teen worrying or is it an anxiety disorder? The answer often lies in whether your child becomes obsessive about these worries to the extent that it interrupts their regular life. 

“Those who chronically worry equate uncertainty with bad outcomes. To lower the risk of a future threat, people with anxiety may try to minimize the number of uncertain situations they encounter,” explains the McLean clinic. 

4) They are consumed by various forms of excessive worry and anxiety

As noted above, obsessive worries can take many forms and become pathological when they start to prevent your child from living his or her regular life and engaging in activities. 

These anxious worries become their main focus. They will often lose interest in schoolwork and academic success as well as social connections. 

Their unrealistic worries over health, their own value, the chance of unforeseen tragedy or many other possible scenarios becomes so overwhelming that they start having uncontrollable periods of rumination and fixation. 

As psychologist Dr. Maneet Bhatia observes

“The core difference between feeling “anxious” and having “anxiety” is that while it’s common to experience short bursts of “butterflies”, anxiety can escalate to uncontrollable, excessive, or unrealistic worry.”

5) They begin having a lot more trouble sleeping

Along with a withdrawal from their former ordinary daily routine, a child suffering from anxiety will often start having problems with insomnia

They have trouble falling asleep and may even develop anxiety over their difficulty sleeping or over sleep itself (somniphobia).

This can spiral into a larger systemic problem as their fears begin to cut into their nights, not just their days. 

“Anxiety in children can show up in different ways, such as avoidance of activities or experiences, irritability, and difficulty sleeping,” notes the McLean Clinic.

“All of these things may point to an issue larger than ‘kids being kids.’”

6) They lash out unexpectedly and become extra irritable

Anxiety is part of a normal human response and occurs at the limbic level. It is our survival system kicking in and trying to protect us. 

The problem occurs when the survival system goes into overdrive and many things which are not at all threatening start to feel like a threat even if we cognitively know they aren’t a threat. 

Kids suffering from anxiety are going through this cycle, which means their system is deciding on a fight-or-flight response. In some cases they may also have a paralysis or indecision response to the anxiety. 

When a kid has their “fight” response triggered to a fear, they may lash out, acting angry and extremely frustrated and oppositional seemingly out of nowhere. 

This is generally misdirected anxious symptoms finding an outlet because they haven’t been addressed. 

As Boorady explains

“They may have explosive outbursts that make people think they are oppositional, when their fight-or-flight mechanism is triggered.”

7) They begin experiencing classic symptoms of anxiety and panic

When your kid is suffering from anxiety it can manifest in many different ways, as noted. 

They may verbalize a lot of anxiety or keep it to themselves and simply become very withdrawn and scared to do anything as well as resistant to social situations and new activities. 

Sooner or later, a serious childhood anxiety problem will show up in anxiety symptoms, however. These are widespread and include

Obsessive fears of impending doom or death, fixation on health (hypochondria), difficulty breathing and shortness of breath, dizziness, cold sweats and heart palpitations, physical pains and symptoms as well as difficulty concentrating and fatigue.

The wide variety of anxiety symptoms adds to the difficulty in defining them fixedly, but even more severe intensifications of these and similar symptoms often occur during panic attacks as well. 

A note on diagnosis

Anxiety is part of a normal human response system. 

But when it overtakes a child’s life and starts dictating their daily habits and fears, it becomes a crisis that has to be dealth with. 

Unlike stress or temporary fears which fade away, anxiety has a tendency to gain momentum and dominate in various troublesome ways that cause more and more suffering to the child and impact their future. 

As the CDC notes, there is no one-size-fits-all definition for childhood anxiety and it can manifest in many different ways.

“Anxiety may present as fear or worry, but can also make children irritable and angry. Anxiety symptoms can also include trouble sleeping, as well as physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, or stomachaches.”

Picture of Paul Brian

Paul Brian

Paul R. Brian is a freelance journalist and writer who has reported from around the world, focusing on religion, culture and geopolitics. Follow him on www.twitter.com/paulrbrian and visit his website at www.paulrbrian.com

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