Childhood is an overwhelming time — there are new schools, awkward situations, and new friends. In fact, for a child, everything is new, and can trigger anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are the most commonly experienced mental illnesses in the United States — this also applies to children. Roughly one in eight children may have an anxiety disorder, though a majority of them go undiagnosed and untreated.
“People underestimate that this is a gateway disorder … It’s bad for these children’s brains … Having your brain’s thermostat miss-set is not good for your brain,” Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, founder and director of the New York University Child Study Center told The New York Times. When children are left anxious, it can seriously impact their lives further down the line, he further explains.
How do you know if your child is experiencing a fear of the dark or a standard phobia? Like adults with anxiety, the difference is a matter of interference. When a child’s fear of being late for school or making a mistake affects their ability to sleep through the night or try new things, they could be struggling with anxiety.
Listen for Anxiety Phrases
When a child has anxiety, it will often appear much different in comparison to an adult. Keep an eye out for some of these phrases:
- “My stomach really hurts,” or “I might get sick.”
- “I really don’t want to.” or “I just want to stay at home”
- “Don’t go!” or “Can we leave soon?”
- “Could you do that for me?” or “I can’t do it”- Children with anxiety often expect perfection from themselves and would rather not try at all than to make a mistake.
- “Are you mad at me?” or “Do you love me?” – Like adults with anxiety, anxious children seek constant approval and reassurance from others.
Watch for Anxiety Behaviors
In addition to the things they say, look out for behavioral signs that your child might be struggling with. Frequent meltdowns are a sign, and tantrums are not just for toddlers. When kids have trouble regulating and managing their own emotions, it can often lead to tantrums — and anxiety can be found at the root.
If you’re concerned, take notes on your kids meltdowns; including the time of day, how long it lasted, any potential triggers, and how she eventually calmed down. This information might help you identify a pattern. Difficulty falling asleep can also be a sign of anxiety, and keeping a log book can help you identify a pattern related to sleep.
School refusal and avoidance behaviors, such as wanting to quit soccer or not attend a birthday party are also signs. Again, one instance isn’t necessarily indicative. What matters is a pattern or behavior that interferes with your child’s wellness.
Treatment for Children With Anxiety
Children experiencing anxiety are often treated with therapy, medication, or a combination of the two. For some children, play therapy will be effective at helping them work through their anxieties. Older children may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help them identify anxious, unrealistic, or self-defeating thoughts. Depending on the severity of symptoms, some kids might be prescribed medication for the short-term or the long-term. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed medication to treat anxiety disorders among children.
As a parent, your instinct is to protect your child. You may want to help your child avoid any situation that makes them feel anxious, such as swimming lessons or auditioning for the school play. Unfortunately, this instinct only makes things worse, according to the Child Mind Institute. Avoiding things that cause anxiety is only a short-term fix, and it ends up reinforcing anxiety rather than acclimating, adjusting, or learning to cope with it.