How to Recognize Anxiety in Children

By Dr. Melissa Ochoa-Perez, Behavioral Health

Having anxiety is natural. It can be normal for young children to be afraid of the dark or for school-age children to be nervous before a test or soccer game. For some kids however, normal anxiety becomes something more serious.  A child might become afraid to leave their parent’s side, sleep alone or need to be reassured over events that happened in the past.  They may not tell you that they are worried but they may complain of body aches before school or go to the nurse’s office at school every day with a stomach or head ache.

The difference between normal worry and anxiety disorders is the severity and duration of the anxiety. Feeling anxious can be a healthy reaction to a stressful situations but anxiety becomes a disorder when it interferes with a child’s ability to handle everyday situations or prompts them to avoid things that most people their age enjoy—at home, school, and with friends.

Generalized anxiety disorder (or GAD) affects about three to five percent of youth and often occurs with one or more of the other types of anxiety (such as separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or social anxiety). Girls are diagnosed more often than boys.

Anxiety can be tricky for a parent to recognize because children often have a tough time expressing what they feel inside. A child’s body responds to anxiety triggers as if in survival mode—the fight-or-flight response is activated. Increased adrenaline in the bloodstream causes the body to release other hormones that can affect the brain, stomach and/or lungs.  This chemical disruption can lead to confused thinking, stomach/bowel complaints and shortness of breath.

Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Recurring complaints about stomach aches or other physical problems
  • Clingy with parents or caregivers
  • Avoiding friends or situations they enjoyed in the past
  • Trouble focusing in class or being unusually fidgety
  • Explosive outbursts, moodiness, tearfulness

Anxiety is very treatable. There are many tools your child can learn that will help them understand both the physical and mental parts of anxiety and learn how they can cope when anxiety hits. Untreated anxiety can lead to loss of confidence, lower self-esteem, academic dysfunction, and eventually self-medication through substance abuse, so it’s important to not ignore ongoing symptoms.

At Legacy, we believe good health is about the mind as well as the body, so our approach to patients is a comprehensive one and reflect our vision of connecting our communities to health every day, in every way.