Every child goes through phases of anxiety—having trouble falling asleep after a scary movie or acting clingy after a death in the family—which is usually temporary and usually harmless. But some children experience ongoing fear, nervousness, and severe shyness that can be classified as an anxiety disorder. How can you tell the difference?
Most children don’t know the word anxiety, and the younger ones often can’t communicate what they’re feeling, so here are the signs to watch for:
- Excessive, Ongoing Clinginess or Separation Anxiety. Most kids act out sometimes when their parent leaves, but normally they are fine a few minutes later. Children who suffer from anxiety don’t want to be separated from a parent because they’re afraid something bad might happen. They act so terrified of being separated that they may become physically ill or inconsolable.
- Physical Symptoms Due To Worrying. Children with anxiety disorder may frequently complain about headaches or stomachaches or feel excessive fatigue. They tend to be “sick” more often than other children because they are constantly worrying or fearful.
- Trouble Going to Bed or Sleeping. Anxious children don’t fight bedtime because they’re afraid of missing out on fun or because they’re not tired. They don’t want to go to bed because they are afraid of lying awake in a quiet room, alone with their thoughts. Often, they’ll cry and beg their parents to stay with them.
- Exhibiting Perfectionism. Children suffering from an anxiety disorder are often afraid to make mistakes. They get very upset when they make even small errors. They often refuse to try something new, for fear they won’t do it perfectly.
- Avoiding Social Situations. Serious anxiety can prevent children from playing with other children, especially in a strange place. They might also fear having an anxiety attack in front of other children or new people. They may feel too vulnerable to go to a new place, even with their parents, for fear of getting hurt or lost.
- Worrying About Things That Haven’t Happened. Children who suffer from anxiety imagine frightening scenarios. They worry about a parent dying or extreme violence in their world and often keep bringing it up even after adult reassurance. They can’t seem to get these fears out of their heads.
What Can You Do?
If these symptoms are familiar and you think your child has a problem with anxiety, start by making an appointment with his or her pediatrician. The doctor can check for any underlying health issues and give you a referral to a clinical child psychologist—someone who specializes in childhood anxiety. (Horizon does not offer mental health services for children at this time.)
You may also want to discuss your child’s diet with the doctor, as sometimes physical issues can manifest themselves mentally or emotionally. Food allergies or sensitivities, too much sugar, or too many processed foods can be inflammatory in the body.
Anxiety disorders are treatable and common, so don’t hesitate to reach out for help.