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As a play therapist, one of the main things I look for is what children are showing me, not what they are telling me. Children under the age of 10 (and sometimes older), struggle to verbalize what bothers them or what feelings they are experiencing. Therefore, when trying to determine if your child is struggling with anxiety, the main question to ask yourself is this – What is my child’s behavior showing me?
Anxiety is a normal emotion. Everyone will experience some level of anxiety or stress during their lives. In fact, we need some stress and anxiety in our lives so that we can learn how to manage it. If a child never experiences some level of stress or anxiety, then they will never learn how to cope with it in a healthy way. For example, our fears or worries prompt us to take a step back and assess for danger in a situation. The human race would not have survived this long if we didn’t have the “fight or flight” instinct instilled in us. However, for the anxious child, these fears and anxieties become so all-consuming and overwhelming that they interfere with everyday life and make even the simplest thing a major problem.
Certain fears occur at certain ages and are simply phases in childhood. For example, infants and toddlers have a fear of strangers. 3-5 year olds have imaginations that are growing and thriving and therefore they develop fears of ghosts, monsters and the dark. Elementary school aged children worry about school performance, social pressure, or real world dangers. When anxiety is just a phase, these fears and concerns are more reasonable. Children going through a phase of anxiety will be more responsive to help, they will accept answers to their questions more easily, and symptoms will diminish over time. When a child’s anxiety is easily managed and the child recovers quickly, chances are, this anxiety won’t last long. However, some anxieties persist, become more intense, and don’t fit into the “age-appropriate” mold. At this point, you are most likely dealing with problematic anxiety.
Red flags for childhood anxiety include:
• Excessive distress that is way out of proportion with the situation – For example, a child has a meltdown before mom and dad leave for their date night in spite of the fact that the babysitter is very familiar and fun to play with.
• A Constant Need for Reassurance- They constantly ask the same questions that you, as a parent, feel they should remember the answer to. This is when parents begin to feel high levels of frustration and impatience. When reassurance never seems enough and often increases the anxiety, you are most likely dealing with anxiety that is more problematic.
• Becoming distressed easily and quickly over little things – Children struggling with anxiety often do not handle minor upsets well. For example, a child with anxiety might get extremely distressed over the very first math problem they struggle to solve rather than staying calm and giving it a try.
• Children with anxiety will also often have physical complaints- tummy aches, headaches, feeling nauseated, etc. Anxiety often manifests itself with physical symptoms. Therefore, if your child is constantly going to the nurse at school before every test they take because they feel sick, they are experiencing anxiety and not a stomach bug.
• Sleep struggles- Night time is prime time for worries to come up. At night it is quiet, the TV or videogame has been turned off, there’s no one to talk to, and all distractions are gone. Anxious thoughts turn on automatically during these times. They will struggle falling asleep, staying asleep or may even have nightmares.
• Anticipating worries well in advance- Children with anxiety have a tendency to overestimate the risk in a situation or assume that the worst will happen. Therefore, rather than worrying about their karate belt test the hour or day before, they worry a week or month before as well.
• Some children will engage in excessive perfectionism and meltdown if something doesn’t stay the way they think it should. Other kids might experience excessive feelings of responsibility or guilt as a result of their anxiety.
• And last but not least, many anxious kids will engage in excessive avoidance to protect themselves from what they are afraid of. For example, a kid might have regular meltdowns that make him/her late for school to avoid the morning math quizzes given regularly in class.
Every child is different. Some children may show their anxiety often and in a very noticeable way. Other kids might suffer more in silence, making it harder to recognize. However, it’s important to keep an eye out for changes in mood and behavior because these are the red flags that tell you whether something is truly wrong or not.
Erin Pridgen, M.S. is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Play Therapist. Her interests include working with children and their families. Her areas of specialty include working with children on the autism spectrum, anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, divorce, grief, behavioral issues, self- esteem and parent to child therapy. Erin leads social skills and divorce care groups for children at the Summit Counseling Center.