Ways Children Might Express Anxiety Without Explicitly Saying So
Anxiety is a silent condition, meaning there is not one obvious sign that screams ‘this is anxiety,’ it can appear in a range of ways, often unique for each individual. This is especially true for children, who may not be able to identify that what they’re feeling is anxiety. This can make it really difficult, as parents, to be sure of what’s bothering our children, especially when anxiety can often present as a physical ailment. Although every child can experience anxiety slightly differently, there are some signs you can look out for. Here are seven common ways your child might be expressing their anxiety
Feeling sick is a common way children feel their anxiety, especially younger kids who can’t necessarily express how they are feeling in words. This can be a difficult situation for children who then may start to feel stressed about feeling sick or sore, on top of their original worry. Before you decide that anxiety is the cause of the stomach ache, start by ruling out other possible reasons, just in case there is something else at play. One way to do this is to track when the stomach aches are taking place. Are they appearing in similar situations? Are there any triggers, like words or people, that could be inducing anxiety?
Discovering if there are triggers for stomach aches is the first step in effectively dealing with your child’s pain and anxiety. You can help them identify when a stomach ache is caused by anxiety and when it may be from something else.
Anxiety often presents as anger in children, teens, and young adults. This may include yelling, unfriendly responses, shutting down or ignoring people. Sometimes with little ones and teenagers, anxiety can present as agitation, oppositional behaviour, naughtiness and playing up at home or at school. Children are often misdiagnosed with oppositional defiance, when, in reality, they are actually experiencing anxiety.
Children and teens with a more sensitised amygdala (a key part of the limbic system, responsible for anxiety) may feel emotions like worry, guilt, sadness, and empathy far more deeply than others. So it is understandable that an exacerbation of these feelings can present as anger. Similarly, adolescents often feel misunderstood and alone, and they may express this through angry responses.
Dealing with anger can be really tough, especially when it seems to be directed towards you. It can be hard as a parent to know how to best approach and manage the situation. However, the good news is that simply allowing time for your child to speak, and listening to them is a helpful strategy for reducing anxiety.
Take time to converse with them in a calm manner when you’re in the car. You can work with them to unpack the reason behind their anxiety, helping them find a solution. Simply having someone to talk to about their feelings might be all your child needs to help ease their worry.
“I’m not hungry” is another way anxiety can present. When we are anxious, our fight-or-flight response kicks in, and the energy that is usually used for digestion is reallocated to generating cortisol and other anxiety-inducing hormones. This is why when we’re anxious, we often don’t feel hungry. Frequently this lack of hunger can come with feelings of dread or nausea, caused by fear or worry about an upcoming event or encounter.
It’s important to consider your child’s normal response to food and mealtimes: ensure you contextualise their usual reaction before deciding this is due to anxiety.
When we are stressed we often tense up our muscles or clench our jaw and this can cause headaches. We also get headaches from focussing on one issue for an extended period.
To help your child alleviate stress-related headaches, try to get them to take some time out. If they have been doing homework for hours, encourage them to take a walk or have a conversation about something unrelated. This will distract them from their worries and will help to reset the hormone levels in their brain and deactivate the limbic system.
Avoidance is a common way kids deal with anxiety, whether this is avoiding a place, a person, a topic, or even an animal. However, avoidance is one of the worst things you can do when it comes to anxiety. While it may alleviate worry in the short term, it will increase stress in the long run by fuelling a negative feedback loop of worry and limited relief.
The best thing you can do for your kids when they start avoiding something is to sit down and talk to them. Approach the topic in a calm and supportive way, without letting any frustration you may be feeling intervene. By giving your child the opportunity and encouragement to speak about their worry you may be able to find the cause of the problem, which takes you one step closer to the solution.
Crying is one of the toughest parts of anxiety, for people of all ages. Often, nothing bad or sad has happened, but the increased activity of the amygdala and the presence of hormones means we feel overwhelmed and emotional.
If your child is crying and you think it could be related to anxiety, it is important to comfort them. Allow them to confide in you and provide them with the support network they need to feel safe. Breathing techniques can be helpful for crying-related anxiety, as by distracting the brain with a focus on breathing patterns, the panic and distress are eased.
Getting enough sleep is one of the most important elements of maintaining wellbeing. Not sleeping is one of the most difficult byproducts of anxiety, and the vicious cycle of insomnia (not sleeping because you’re anxious, and then becoming anxious about not sleeping) can be particularly tough to manage. However, one thing to keep in mind is that your body’s fight-or-flight response is what causes this reaction, and in and of itself, this is not a negative thing at all. The fact that you can’t sleep when you are worried means that your responses to danger or threat – when there truly is something to fear – are working properly, and that’s something we can thank evolution for.
Explaining this science and cause of anxiety to your child (in a simplified way) can be really useful when easing the worry about not sleeping. Once they understand this, it can make it easier to drift off to sleep. Similarly to managing crying or anger, breathing exercises can be useful for helping kids get to sleep. They may find the 7-11 technique useful, where you breathe in for 7 beats and out for 11. Listening to meditation music can also help to ease worry and calm your child’s mind.
There are many more scientifically-proven treatment methods we use, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to reduce anxiety. If you have any concerns about your child experiencing anxiety, please don’t hesitate to visit your General Practitioner or make an appointment with us directly.
If you would like to hear more about this topic, make sure you listen to Dr Jodie Lowinger on the No Filter podcast where she has an in-depth conversation with Mia Freedman about anxiety.