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7 subtle signs your child is suffering from anxiety

POSTED: August 2, 2017 11:40 a.m.
Lindsey Miller/

Does your child show any of these subtle and surprising signs?

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Anxiety is something a lot of adults struggle with, but as adults, we're able to talk about those struggles and recognize when we need help.

It’s a little harder to tell when a child is suffering from anxiety because they don’t quite understand what they’re feeling. Because children don’t typically directly say they’re feeling anxious, it’s important as a parent to know the signs and recognize them in your child.

Here are seven signs your child suffers from anxiety:

1. They constantly think negatively

Pessimism is an indicator that your child suffers from anxiety. This includes always expecting the worst or feeling nervous that something bad will happen — your child might be afraid of going on vacation because they think the house will burn down while you’re gone. This is an extreme example, but it can be little things too, like worrying getting into a car accident when driving somewhere.

2. They have physical pains

It’s common for children with anxiety to experience stomach aches and headaches. According to the Anxiety-Free Child program, the stomach often reflects emotions. For this reason, Dr. Michael Gershon has even coined the stomach as the "second brain".

The program states, “You probably have experienced this ‘second brain’ in action when you’re nervous and get the flittering feeling of butterflies in your stomach. Your child may be experiencing it when he or she is anxious and the belly is peppered with pain. Even if the nervousness or anxiety is all in your head, it can create a real sensation or pain in your abdominal area.”

3. Everything has to be perfect

It’s understandable when your child spents a long time drawing a nice picture. However, look out for signs of perfectionism in your child. If they destroy the picture they’re coloring and start all over on a new one because of one tiny mistake, this can be an indicator. Having a meltdown or panic attack when something doesn’t go as planned could also be a sign.

Help your child understand that everyone makes mistakes, and mistakes are crucial in order to learn and progress in life. Anxiety BC suggests coming up with a few quotes for you and your child to memorize about failure, mistakes and bouncing back.

4. They procrastinate

This goes hand in hand with perfectionism. According to Anxiety BC, “Perfectionistic children and teens often cope with their fear of mistakes by procrastinating.” Other reasons anxious children procrastinate include being overwhelmed with too many things to do, or thinking the task is too big to accomplish so they don’t want to deal with it at all.

Setting a routine can help. If your child has something to do, help them break it down into realistic, undaunting smaller tasks. Another way to help is to get things done before doing a task they look forward to. Let your child watch their favorite show after cleaning up, for example.

5. They have sleep problems

Anxious children can have a hard time falling asleep, staying asleep and can have regular nightmares. Here to Help suggests setting a bedtime routine that starts at least an hour before bedtime. Spend this time reading your child a story, giving them a little snack, or giving them a warm bath.

The point of the bedtime routine is to help the child relax. Once your child is in bed, they might worry about where you are so it’s important to check on them just to let them know you’re still there. Comforting an anxious child will help them sleep better.

6. They cry and throw tantrums

Adults and children with anxiety tend to have irrational fears. While many adults can understand that their fears are irrational and push through the feelings, children can’t grasp the fact that they really have nothing to worry about. Of course the feelings of fear are very real and present; the child just has a harder time differentiating real fear and feeling afraid.

According to the Anxiety Disorder Association of America, “Children will avoid situations or things that they fear or endure them with anxious feelings, which may show up as crying, tantrums, clinging, avoidance, headaches and stomach aches.”

Realizing your child's tantrum could actually be an expression of anxiety can help you pinpoint their symptoms and get help comforting them.

7. Their eating patterns are off

If you notice your child hides in a closet to eat a snack or is extremely picky when it comes to food, they might be showing a sign of anxiety.

New York Times highlighted a study done by Pediatrics journal about picky children. The study found that picky eating “is associated with anxiety, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder". Children who had intense food aversions (like being unable to eat outside of the home) "were seven times more likely to have social anxiety and twice as likely to have a diagnosis of depression compared to children without selective eating habits.”

You know your child, and you know what’s best for them. Use this list as a guideline to help your child overcome and cope with their anxiety, but understand that there are other signs your child might have that aren’t listed here. Every child is different, so find out what methods work best for yours, discuss your child's symptoms with their doctor and learn the best ways to cope.
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