“My kid might have anxiety???” This is the response 90% of parents have when they find themselves sitting on the couch in my therapy office seeking to gain insight into their child’s confusing and challenging behaviors. Often they have viewed and approached their child’s mystifying actions through a behavioral lens, with a good dose of rewards, consequences, and sticker charts, only to find that the behaviors not only stick around but intensify. Here are 10 anxiety symptoms in children that commonly baffle parents but are indicative of our body’s fight-flight-freeze response (and are proven by science).
Hands down, this is the one that most commonly throws parents off, even though when you think about it, it makes total sense. How do you react when living in a chronic state of anxiety and overwhelm? Very likely, you are more emotionally reactive.
“Mom how many minutes until we get there?” Every kid asks these questions. Not every kid asks 25 times (yes, literally 25 times) during an hour-long road trip. Not knowing what to expect is highly uncomfortable for kids with anxiety and one way they can cope is by seeking information excessively.
The excessive seeking of reassurance is a common symptom of generalized anxiety as well as a more specific form of anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The obsessions are uncomfortable reoccurring anxious thoughts, and the compulsion is any behavior, including asking questions, with the end goal of seeking reassurance to try to find relief.
When your brain triggers a fight or flight response several physiological changes are set off in the body. It’s pretty awesome how our amazing human brains and bodies work together to protect us!
Have you ever avoided paying the bills or having that uncomfortable conversation with your boss for days or even weeks on end? Children with anxiety utilize avoidance as a coping mechanism but in a more blatant way that can look like defiance or oppositional behavior. When children are digging in this hard to assert a sense of control, it’s because internally they feel very out of control which can be a by-product of anxiety.
Struggling to fall asleep
Anxious thoughts love to visit when our minds are quiet and the hustle and bustle of the day are no longer there to distract us. These thoughts make it difficult to physically and mentally relax for healthy sleep responses to occur.
Trouble with focus
Living under a heightened state of stress puts a child’s brain on continual ‘survival mode’, meaning the emotion center of the brain is continually overactivated. When a child’s amygdala is working in overdrive their ‘thinking brain’ (located in the frontal lobe) automatically becomes less accessible.
A brain operating in emotional overdrive will need a release for all emotions including sadness, and this release often comes when your child is triggered by common environmental challenges such as not getting something they want, a minor disagreement with a sibling/friend, or having to transition from one activity to another.
Running away is simply the ‘flight’ part of fight or flight. When your child feels overwhelmed, her brain is triggered to physically escape the situation as a means for survival.
“I want to stay with you and not go to school”. Having a caregiver nearby to offer physical comfort and reassurance provides a temporary band-aid for a child’s anxiety symptoms. The thought of being ‘on their own at school may leave a child feeling uncomfortable and overwhelmed and the reduced ability to use their rational brain to reason oftentimes leaves them unable to pinpoint exactly ‘why’ they don’t want to go.