What are the signs of anxiety in kids?
By now, your child should be back into the swing of school. But, while natural anxiety comes with starting each school year, parents should understand the signs of anxiety and stress and seek professional help if needed.
We talked to our CHRISTUS Health experts to discuss anxiety symptoms and what you can do as a parent.
Are children having a more difficult time now?
As society returns to normal after the pandemic, children and teenagers may still be adjusting and feeling uncertain. The lack of social activities for two years only exacerbates the feeling of a transition.
"There's still transition. Still fear. Still some anxiety. It's not quite normal yet," said Dr. Nabil Gad, Medical Director of Behavioral Health Unit at Christus St Frances Cabrini.
Gad said we went from a time of great uncertainty to adjusting back to a new normal.
"That was a big change and big adjustments, including with my children," Gad said. "That was an adjustment for them to transition again, from completely isolated to now."
Symptoms of Anxiety in Children
Angelique Snyder, a pediatric psychologist at the at The Children's Hospital of San Antonio, said parents know their kids best.
"Noticing any change in behavior or attitude would be a good start."
Snyder said parents could observe signs of anxiety in their children:
- You might notice your child is more on edge and tense
- They might complain about headaches or stomach aches
- They might have more negative thoughts than usual
- They might have more fears and worries about an event and avoid it at all costs
- They also tend to ask many what-if questions or have a change in feelings
"Avoiding something would be a big sign of anxiety or being overly clingy and asking a lot for a lot of reassurance,” Snyder said. "Anxious cognitions tend to be about the future, and they're predicting negative outcomes."
Children between 6 and 10 begin showing avoidant behavior, which indicates anxiety.
Some Kids Can't Identify Anxiety
Some children come in and know they are dealing with anxiety. A psychologist or therapist can provide strategies for them. However, the big problem is that many children don't realize they are experiencing stress and anxiety.
"For others, they're not really sure what it is, and they're not sure how to label it or what's going on," Snyder said. "And so we want to make sure that kids have the words to express what's happening to them."
Elena Mikalsen, Ph.D., the Section Chief of the Department of Psychology at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, said that most children have anxiety about starting middle school or high school.
How to help your teen with anxiety about fitting in
The most common worry for teens is fitting in with a new and much larger group of peers. Adolescence is the time when teens struggle to find their identity and struggle to figure out which group of peers they wish to fit in with.
- Reassure your child that he or she will find peers and acceptance.
- Encourage them to express their interests but also to try new things. Adolescence is a good time to experiment and try new hobbies. Encourage your child to try different extracurricular activities based on their abilities and interests.
- Also, encourage children to try something outside of what their group of peers is doing, as often teens get stuck choosing activities based on whether they will grant an automatic acceptance to a clique.
Help your child or teen with low self esteem about their looks
Pre-teens and teens become more aware of their looks and what others think. Hairstyles and colors, makeup, certain styles of clothing give kids both an individual and group identity.
Boys and girls feel pressure to look or dress a certain way to be accepted.
- Recognize their need to belong and feel accepted and express understanding of this need. Don’t comment negatively on their clothing/looks/hair.
- Remember, you were a teen once and also conformed to peer pressure to look a certain way.
- If you don’t like the way your child dresses or does her hair, explain to her what your concerns are in a calm way. See if you can compromise between your standards and her need to look in such a way to belong to her group.
How to help your child feel she is smart enough
There is tremendous pressure on pre-teens and teens to achieve and take a more significant number of standardized tests than ever.
Schools focus on preparing children for college and pushing for higher scores on standardized tests.
Psychologists see an increasing number of children with stress-related medical disorders as early as middle school. Many teens spend most of their free time inside studying for hours to compete for their top 10 percent rating in high school so they can attend their college of choice.
- Remind your teen that colleges don’t just accept students with top grades. They also want a well-rounded, happy individual who will succeed for four years.
- College acceptances are based on many factors, not just all As in AP classes. Make sure your child can carry the academic load he may have chosen.
- Ensure your child has good mental and physical health. Teaching how to cope with stress and manage anxiety is important.
When should parents start seeking professional help and medical advice?
Parents should seek help when they feel their child's anxiety is too overwhelming.
Suppose a parent notices that stress is taking things away from kids. For example, they're no longer enjoying their family or friends; they can no longer participate in something as they used to. In addition, they are exhibiting more signs of anxiety more often.
A psychologist's job is to equip parents with education and tools to help them notice signs of anxiety in their children. Parents are a big part of therapy, especially for younger kids.
"We do talk about feelings," Snyder said. "But we also talk about practical strategies that parents can do with the goal of empowering families. It is knowing that they can cope and manage even when there's a lot of stress."
Where Can Parents Get Help?
To start, parents can see their pediatric primary care provider. It’s important to have a medical professional with a perspective on your child’s overall health. Your pediatrician can also refer you to a therapist or a pediatric psychiatrist.
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