It can be tough for kids and teens to recognize that they’re dealing with anxiety. They might be scared or worried, or they might have a hard time sleeping. They may not want to eat. Their behaviors might be changing, unbeknownst to them, but clearly to everyone else around them.
They may be feeling all kinds of anxiety, without knowing they’re dealing with anxiety.
As a parent or guardian, how can you assess whether the signs of anxiety you’re seeing are enough to call on a professional?
Calling on a trained mental health professional is always a great first step, but it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with some of the types of anxiety disorders so you can be aware of what to watch out for.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). When a child or teen has GAD, they worry about the same things other kids worry about: school, friendships, mistakes, the future.
But when a kid has GAD, they worry more than their peers do, and sometimes over things that other kids don’t worry about. They might have anxiety over the weather, like potential tornadoes; they might worry about who they’re going to sit next to on the bus after school; they might worry about their loved ones getting hurt on their way home from work.
They might worry so much they can’t focus on school or even on having fun. They can worry so much they’re literally “worrying themselves sick.”
Social phobia, or social anxiety disorder. When a child has social phobia, they might be afraid to say something because it might be embarrassing, or that they might look odd or different to other people. They avoid speaking up in class, or doing anything that might bring attention to them. When spoken to, they might freeze in place.
Kids with social anxiety disorder may avoid going to parties or spending time with new people. They might complain of headaches or stomachaches right before heading to school, or they might call home to get picked up because they’re not feeling well.
It’s important to pay attention to your child’s physical health too. Sometimes, these aches and pains and complaints are dismissed or brushed off as “made up” when they can truly be present. They’re a manifestation – a real one – of emotional distress.
Panic disorder. When a young person has a sudden anxiety attack that’s marked by physical symptoms like shakiness, a racing heart, or shortness of breath, that’s a panic attack. They’re very common, and can happen at any time.
Separation anxiety. We’ve heard of little ones getting very anxious on their first day of kindergarten or their first day in a new school, but most of the time, that anxious dwindles as they day goes on. Sometimes it can even take a couple of days before the child is relaxed and feeling right at home. It’s totally natural for a child to be worried when they’re put in a new situation with strange people.
But when the child doesn’t outgrow the fear of being away from their family or what’s familiar, that might be separation anxiety disorder. When a child has separation anxiety disorder, they may miss a lot of days of school, or they might ask to come home more often than they stay in school. They may have a temper tantrum or a panic attack before class. They may not even be able to fall asleep in their own bedrooms alone.
If any of these sound familiar, there are ways to help. A trained professional can be of valuable assistance, not just for your child, but also for you. Together, you can learn how to help your child face their fears and talk about what they’re thinking and feeling. It might not be overnight, but your child can and will feel better with the right kind of support.