Attention, parents! I have two pieces of news that may (or may not) surprise you: 1) Anxiety in children is on the rise; and 2) Anxiety symptoms in children can sometimes be hidden or masked as something else.
Scary, right? The simple truth is that anxiety doesn’t manifest in children the same way it does in adults. And, if missed, it can lead to other serious and possibly even long-term health detriments.
As a doctor and a mother, I implore you to stop and take the time to learn more about how anxiety manifests in children. Whether you have kids of your own or care about the little ones in your extended family or circle, this is one article you don’t want to miss.
It’s time that we take a moment and really educate ourselves on how to watch for the hidden anxiety symptoms in children so we can set them up for their best and brightest future possible.
Children and Anxiety: Everything You Need to Know
Before we jump into the specific anxiety symptoms in children you need to look out for, I want to take a moment and explain why this is such an important issue.
Think about the year we’ve just had. We’re a chronically stressed nation as it is, and that includes our children. But for the last 12-plus months, we were all dealing with unprecedented amounts of stress due to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. And one could argue that our kids were hit the hardest.
Practically overnight, our children were ripped away from their schools, friends, routines, and even extended family members. Many were relegated to interaction only amongst their immediate family members for months.
Then, when they were allowed back out into the world, they had to wear face coverings to keep them protected. Think about how these events impact a child. Think about how hard it is to learn social cues and to read facial expressions with masks on. The world they knew was gone in an instant.
The result? Anxiety!
Why is Anxiety in Children is On the Rise?
Throughout the U.S., reported symptoms of anxiety were three times higher in 2020 than in 2019, while depression reports were four times higher. And between April and October 2020, mental health-related emergency visits increased by 24 percent for young children and 31 percent for older children. 
Now, things are starting to improve, with numbers declining and restrictions decreasing, but the hard truth is that anxiety in children has been a problem for a while now. So, even if things return to some semblance of “normal,” the simple fact is that anxiety in children isn’t really going anywhere.
Let’s take a look at some of the stats on anxiety and children before the pandemic: [2, 3]
- 1 in 8 children have an anxiety disorder.
- 32 percent of adolescents have an anxiety disorder.
- From 2003 to 2011, childhood anxiety and depression rates rose by 56 percent!
Wow! I’ll be honest, I had to take a minute to catch my breath after reading those statistics. While we’re becoming accustomed to the ideas of feeling stressed or anxious, the truth of the matter is that having anxiety is very detrimental to our health. Here’s why ….
Anxiety is a long-lasting response to stress, making it more of a chronic stress issue. And it’s been shown to impact the health of our brains. Think about what that means for the developing brain in a child.
The relationship between anxiety and the brain is a fascinating one. Unfortunately, chronic high levels cortisol (the stress hormone) have been shown to have toxic effects on your brain over time. 
Basically, anytime you experience a highly stressful event, your cortisol rises, causing your body to enter the fight-or-flight mode. And this sets off a chain of events inside your brain.
When your body enters fight-or-flight, it sends a message to your amygdala (the part of your brain responsible for processing emotions such as fear, happiness, and more). And this impacts the area of your brain associated with learning and memory.
While this process actually helps you respond appropriately to short-term bouts of stress, when it happens too regularly, it actually damages your brain and results in short-term memory loss and inattention to detail.
Now, let’s consider this information as we return to our conversation about children. If anxiety is on the rise in children, how is it affecting their brains?
And if chronic stress and anxiety result in short-term memory loss and inattention to detail, and, again, anxiety in children is on the rise, is it really any wonder that ADHD diagnoses are also rising?
As of 2016, 9.4 percent of all children in the U.S. had been diagnosed with ADHD. That’s 6.1 million children. But in 2017, just one year later? That number jumped to 11 percent! That’s a 17 percent increase in just one year!
Why is this happening? Could it be that we’ve come to accept anxiety simply as “just a part of life” instead of the dangerous condition it actually is? Or are we missing the anxiety symptoms in children because we don’t know what to look for?
Let’s take aa look at some of the top anxiety symptoms in children so you know what to look for. Then, we’re going to discuss a few techniques you can try to help your child or the children in your life cope with their anxiety in a healthy way.
5 Anxiety Symptoms in Children
So, what are signs of anxiety in a child? Unfortunately, anxious children tend to keep their symptoms to themselves, so if you suspect your child may be suffering from anxiety, make sure to check in when them and look out for the following symptoms:
- Feeling fear or worry
- Acting irritable and/or angry
- Having trouble sleeping
- Feeling fatigued
- Experiencing regular pain, such as headaches or stomachaches
Now that you know what to look for regarding anxiety symptoms in children, let’s review a few natural techniques you can use to help calm anxiety in children.
4 Techniques to Calm Anxiety in Children
Here are four techniques to try to help fight anxiety and restore a sense of calm in your child.
1. Give anxiety a name and a signal.
By explaining what anxiety is and what it feels like, your child will learn how to recognize when it’s happening. And when they recognize that it’s happening, they can gain better control over it.
If you need help explaining anxiety to a child, check out the list of recommended books in this article: “The Best Books About Anxiety For Kids: An Age-by-Age Guide.”
Another tip that may help is to identify a hand signal that your child can give to you when he or she is feeling fear, worry, angry, etc. It will signal to you that they need help managing their anxiety so that you can step in and aid them sooner rather than later.
Conversely, you can also display the signal anytime you suspect your child may be feeling anxious to check in.
Remember, anxious children tend to keep their feelings and even some symptoms to themselves, so it’s always beneficial to check in if you’re concerned.
Sometimes it’s easier for an anxious child to shoot you a hand signal or simply nod “yes” instead of explaining their complicated feelings. Plus, having an understood signal is great for smaller children.
2. Start a communication journal.
According to my friend Jodi Durr, creator of Meaningful Mama, starting a communication journal with your child is a great way to help them share complicated emotions they may not yet be ready to verbalize.
Here’s how it works: Identify a communication journal to be used only by your child and you. When your child is feeling a strong emotion, have him or her write down any thoughts or feelings. Then, he or she either brings you the journal or lets you know there’s an entry for your review.
Next, you have a chance to read his or her thoughts and feelings and craft a thoughtful response.
The outcome? According to Jodi, “I have found that giving [my daughter] the opportunity to write things down has helped. I also think it helps when I respond that I understand how she is feeling and then further discuss the situation. Empathy can be such a powerful tool in parenting.”
3. Practice deep breathing together.
If you find that your child is experiencing heightened anxiety, you may want to practice deep breathing or forms of meditation together.
When it’s done in specific patterns, deep breathing techniques can be extremely beneficial for anxiety. For specific techniques, check out my article on the Top 4 Breathing Exercises to Relieve Stress.
Also, when it comes to meditation, it’s not necessarily practical to expect a younger child to sit and focus long enough to meditate. But I’ve found that the Mindful Kids cards for ages 4 and up are great for promoting focus and aiding calm. In fact, I’ve used them with my sons when they needed help overcoming anxiety.
4. Focus on reducing at-home stressors.
While we all like to believe our homes are the ultimate relaxing space and sanctuary from the rest of the world, the truth is that this may not always be the case.
Today, we put a lot of stress on our kids—largely due to our own demands and rising stress levels.
The next time your child approaches you with a problem or makes a mistake that you feel could’ve (and should’ve) been avoided, ask yourself if your typical reaction is necessary or if it could be causing anxious feelings in your child.
Ask yourself if your child is under more pressure than you were at their age and, if so, what you can do about it to help them.
Another way to reduce stress-induced anxiety at home? Cut back on screen time. While it’s natural for kids to want to be on them, the truth of the matter is that increased screen time has been linked to heightened anxiety in children and even an increased risk of being diagnosed with ADHD.
Instead of allowing them to be on their phones or tablets constantly, ask your child to join you in a family game night or movie night. Or you could introduce them to a fun book you enjoyed as a child.
The important thing is to find a way to foster a connection, which can help not only to reduce anxiety symptoms in children but also set them up for a happy and healthy life.
- Anxiety symptoms in children can sometimes be hidden or masked as something else. And this is a problem since anxiety in children is on the rise.
- Five of the top hidden anxiety symptoms in children include: feeling fear or worry, acting irritable and/or angry, having trouble sleeping, feeling fatigued, and experiencing regular pain, such as headaches or stomachaches.
- Some natural techniques for reducing anxiety in children include: giving anxiety a name and a signal, starting a communication journal, practicing deep breathing and kid-friendly meditation, and focusing on reducing at-home stressors such as screen time and placing unrealistic demands on our kids.
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