How to spot symptoms of anxiety in children

Health Agenda
Mental Health

How to spot symptoms of anxiety in children

Being able to identify signs and symptoms of anxiety in a child can help parents and carers understand and support their youngsters.

Most of us would be able to describe anxiety and how it makes us feel.

We might say our heart races, our stomach churns, our head pounds, our face gets flushed or we start sweating.

But are we able to spot when these moments are happening to our kids?

Anxiety affects people in different ways, but when it comes to anxiety in children, there are some common signs and symptoms that can signal they’re struggling.

Here, we look at what anxiety in children is, and some of the signs to look out for that a child needs extra support.

What is childhood anxiety?

Anxiety in children can range from a one-off episode of nerves and fear related to a specific event – such as starting school or speaking in public – to anxiety disorders, which are more serious and may need professional support.

While all children may feel anxious at times, it’s important to know that anxiety isn’t simply everyday childhood behaviour. Anxiety is when patterns of behaviour continue for two weeks or more and start to affect your child’s ability to live the life they want or to be happy.

When we talk about feeling anxious, having anxiety or experiencing anxiety disorders, we mostly think about the bad stuff. But anxiety isn’t always bad.

“We need anxiety to manage challenges,” says child psychologist Rita Princi-Hubbard. “It’s a survival instinct to protect us when we feel unsafe. Symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, and a racing heart – these are all caused by the body trying to cope, to run or to fight. But it can feel overwhelming.”

So, while our brain senses danger and tries to give us the fuel to fight it off, or run away from it, in reality, there’s no actual threat and our bodies are being flooded with hormones we don’t actually need, which literally makes us feel sick.

In her book Hey Warrior, Karen Young explains anxiety and how it might feel to a child by comparing the brain’s reaction to a smoke alarm:

“Have you ever burnt toast and set off the fire alarm? The alarm can’t tell the difference between smoke from a fire and smoke from burnt toast… and it doesn’t care. All it wants to do is keep you safe... It can’t always tell the difference between something that might hurt you and something that won’t.”

Potential threats may be something like appearing on stage, or even just going to school, depending on the kind of anxiety your child is experiencing. And while these things aren’t dangerous, to your child, the symptoms of anxiety can feel terrifying.

Signs of anxiety in a child

The part of our brain that helps us rationalise potentially upsetting situations doesn’t finish developing until our mid- to late 20s, which explains why children can react to challenges in a different way to adults.

For example, when was the last time you saw an adult crying at the shops because their favourite cereal was out of stock? Or throwing themselves to the ground and screaming when they didn’t get their own way?

Children react to emotional challenges in their own way, and these sorts of reactions are normal behaviour while they’re young.

External signs that your child may be experiencing anxiety include:

  • frequent and ongoing emotional outbursts over minor issues
  • a change in eating or sleeping habits and patterns, or finding it hard to sleep or frequent nightmares
  • constant worry over bad things happening to either themselves or a primary carer
  • a fear or disinterest in school and other activities
  • panics for no obvious reason
  • easily overwhelmed by challenges; gives up easily; difficulty concentrating on a task or a conversation
  • negative self-talk like “I’m so stupid” or “no-one likes me”.

Physical symptoms of anxiety in children

As adults, we understand that feeling anxious or experiencing anxiety can cause physical symptoms such as sweating or breathlessness.

In children, physical symptoms of anxiety can look different and may often be mistaken for other common childhood conditions, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or even just fidgeting.

Physical symptoms of childhood anxiety can include:

  • fidgeting or an inability to sit still or stop moving
  • pulling hair
  • pulling or biting on fingernails
  • pulling or biting on lips.

Easing symptoms of anxiety in children

“I get kids to move,” says Rita, who suggests children experiencing the symptoms of anxiety, caused by a flood of hormones, need to run around. “[Get them to] jump, run, move, touch toes. Anything that gets rid of all this extra fuel.”

Other actions that can help children when they experience anxiety include:

  • controlled breathing in and out to slow the heart rate
  • tensing and relaxing their muscles, such as the hands and feet
  • walking and talking with a parent or carer.

To help combat symptoms over time and lessen their severity and frequency, parents can equip children with a toolbox of coping strategies, says Rita.

“Give them a protective community outside of school by finding something they love to do, such as chess, sports or LEGO clubs. Getting out into nature is great as well, so look for things like kids gardening groups, or go on regular nature walks.”

Rita also points to the therapeutic benefits of having a furry friend.

“Pets are great. They give real connection and are calming and soothing. [The love hormone] oxytocin is released in our bodies when we stroke a dog, which can help calm us and [make us feel] less stressed.”

Getting help with child anxiety

As a parent, you’re not alone when it comes to helping a child with anxiety.

HCF members with hospital or extras cover have access to Calm Kid Central*, an online educational and support program to help kids aged 4-11 learn to act bravely and confidently, behave in positive ways, develop good friendships and manage tough life situations.

The program includes online courses, video lessons, activities and animations to help them understand and better manage their feelings. There is also confidential access to an experienced child psychologist who can answer your questions within 48 hours. Plus, there are resources for children who are worried or unsettled by COVID-19.

Where to find extra help for kids’ mental health support:

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Updated October 2021

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