Recognising When Your Child Is Anxious

Recognising When Your Child Is Anxious.

I have been a parent for nearly 21 years now and throughout the many and varied seasons of child-raising, some of those years were focussed on helping some of our children through stages of anxiety.

Not that long ago, we found ourselves in a very tricky situation with our 10 year old daughter, Milly.  She became terrified of sleeping on her own at night.  She found the darkness unbearable and every single night would whip herself into such a frenzy of crying and panic, it broke our hearts.  As I write this I can feel tears welling up at the thought of her distress, night after night.

One particularly difficult night, Milly asked my husband and I, if it would be easier for her to leave us and join another family, as her tears and anxiety must be too much of a burden on us.
You can imagine how deeply affected we were by her words!  Our sweet 10 year old expressing this so tenderly, nearly completely undid us.

Then on the other side, was our son, Harry, who began first year high school and became so deeply distressed and anxious during school time, due to group bullying.  However, Harry showed his anxiety in different ways and for a long time, we were unaware of how bad things had become for him at school.

Both children experienced severe anxiety, but were poles apart in their representation of this emotion.  And even though, both children are very quiet, their anxiety was uniquely displayed, often making it hard to read as a parent.

There are key signs to look for if you suspect you have an anxious child.
Our family, have actually faced all of these and whilst this list is comprehensive, it doesn’t mean anxiety or fear can be dealt with through a textbook strategy.  All children are so different and we know that what works for one, may definitely not work for the other.

1.  Feeling unwell to the point of wanting to vomit.

This is actually a very common complaint of children who are experiencing anxiety.  The reason for the sickness, is because the body slows down so that anything that isn’t absolutely essential will be conserved for energy later.  Think the flight and fight scenario (a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival).  Blood flow is directed from the organs to the brain and digestion slows.  This can feel like butterflies or nausea.  It is a very normal part of anxiety and completely safe but also completely awful to experience.

2.  Suppression of appetite.

If you notice your child is finding eating difficult, this may be an early warning sign that your little one is suffering from anxiety.  While the reasons have not been proven completely, it is thought to be a combination of a variety of factors which contribute to loss of appetite.  Some of these include the amount of stomach acid produced when anxious, can actually make the individual feel fuller for longer.

According to Calm Clinic, serotonin is also a key element to loss of appetite.  This neurotransmitter affects how full someone feels, as well as how anxious they are. If the amount of serotonin is abnormal, anxiety levels and appetite will also be abnormal.

In my experience, it isn’t wise to force your child to eat when they are in the throes of an anxious moment.  You may find it doesn’t stay where it should!

3. Worrying over seemingly minor things that shouldn’t factor at all.

Your child may begin to obsessively worrying about very small things.

For us, in Milly’s case, it was the fact that she didn’t want to be awake on her own when we all went to bed.  However, considering she was put to bed a minimum of three hours earlier than my husband and I would retire, it appeared to be a small and insignificant worry.  Except for her, it was a huge deal and meant she was unable to naturally fall to sleep at her usual time.

We dealt with this by assuring her we would check in on her every 30 minutes until she eventually fell asleep.  These small actions were a comfort to her and she was able to relax, knowing that we would be watching over her until she dropped off to sleep.

Other parents report that their child would suddenly begin to worry about things that they usually loved to do, such as playing a certain sport or going to a friend’s house.  Remember that these situations alone often aren’t the cause of the anxiety, it is the anxiety itself that manifests into the situation.

4. Not wanting to go to school.

Not wanting to go to school is a very common trait in children and anxiety isn’t always the reason behind it.  Your child may generally just take a bit longer to adapt to the school environment, so I wouldn’t automatically assume it is because your little one is anxious.  However, if your child has been enjoying school, socialising well and coming home happy in the past – and all of that seems to change overnight, it could be due to anxiety.

Talk to your child’s teacher and/or the mother’s of your child’s peers.  They may be able to shed light on the situation.  Maybe an incident occured in the playground that you were unaware of, and this has had an affect on your child.

And of course, talk to your little one.  We have found it beneficial to not directly ask our children what is concerning them because often they are unable to vocalise the problem.  Instead we have spent quality one-to-one time with our kids, engaging in the things that they enjoy, such as bike riding or swimming at the beach.  It was during those moments that our children relaxed and conversation flowed to the point of finding out what it was that was bothering them.

Quality time is often the key to listening to your child’s heart.  It gives you both space in a calm environment to connect.  We have found this to be the best course of action when our children are struggling.

5. Being extra clingy to mum or dad.

If you find your child is suddenly insecure about leaving you, again it doesn’t necessarily mean anxiety is the problem.
There are so many other factors that are very normal and common in children, such as being over-tired, over-stimulated or simply genuinely missing mum and dad, which is not a negative emotion but a sign that you have a fantastic home life!!
However, if the separation time continues to be traumatic (for both parent and child), it may be a sign of anxiety.

According to Psych4Schools, “about 4 per cent of primary school age children experience excessive separation anxiety when separated from the parent or primary care giver.  These children persistently worry about being forgotten, or the parent being harmed or not returning.

That being said, separation anxiety is part of normal childhood development.  It begins around six months of age and typically ends by the time children begin kindergarten or preschool.  A healthy level of separation anxiety indicates the development of a close bond and attachment to parents.

The warning sign is really when your child has in the past, been happy to leave you, and that suddenly changes.  Then it is time to look into what has changed in your child’s life to contribute to those emotions.

6. Wetting the bed when your child has been consistently dry at night.

This is a common complaint of parents whose child has easily been dry for years sometimes, and then suddenly wets the bed every night for no apparent reason.  Wetting the bed when sleeping has been linked to emotional problems and the toll they take on the body.  Stress can interfere with the body’s normal sleep patterns and an increase in restlessness can cause an increase in metabolism, which in turn multiplies the production of urine while sleeping.

The good news is that bed wetting is normally a short-term problem and as soon as the cause of the anxiety is discovered and passes, so does the bed-wetting.  In essence, be patient as a parent, because like all of the other symptoms above, the problem isn’t the bed-wetting in itself, rather the stress behind it.

7. Crying at the drop of a hat.

Small children will cry to express their emotions, as it is a release for stress or emotional energy.  It can serve as a communication tool to share emotions or seek comfort, as they are not able to cognitively show their parents any other way to indicate hunger, tiredness etc.

In older children, who do have the ability to convey their feelings, sudden and prolonged crying may be an indicator of stress.  If your child is crying a lot, as a parent there are a few things you can do sensitively to tackle the problem.
An article in The Star, explains it this way:

  • Talk about emotions when things are calm, such as spending quality time with your child, as described above.
    Or another option, as detailed in The Star, is instead of discussing it in the middle of a personal episode, using characters in books or movies to connect to your child’s experiences has proved successful.
    “Parents can have these conversations with kids from pre-school through high school,” she said. “Remind your child too of times they have handled difficult situations well, or times when strong emotions had been overcome.”
  • Acknowledge that tears are part of being human. “Many children have been damaged by adults who unwittingly communicate things like ‘big boys don’t cry,’ or ‘it’s never right to shed a tear,’” Let kids know that crying is a natural outcome of pain, sadness, disappointment, fear, frustration, anger and even joy.

8. Withdrawing from friends and family.

Firstly, look at your child’s personality.  Is he/she a naturally quiet person?  Your little one may be growing into themselves and find that they prefer small groups of children to play with instead of large, noisy ones.  This isn’t a sign of anxiety but a positive outcome that your child is finding out what works for them in social situations.

On the other hand, if you have an outgoing and bubbly little one, who is overnight very withdrawn and anxious, there is probably something going on that needs to be investigated.  And remember, it doesn’t have to be a big thing.  Often very small occurrences in children’s lives, create big ripples in their hearts.  It could be that their seating arrangement at school has been altered and they are not sitting with people they know well.  Or, in our case, with one of our boys, it was the arrival of a relief teacher, instead of his normal one, that caused deep distress.  Once you find out what is the cause, you can make steps to deal with it.

So how do you combat these anxiety flare-ups and what’s the good news about all of this?

First of all, the good news is that it will pass.

Worrying is a normal and natural human response, so as a parent or care-giver, don’t rush in to sort out the problem straight away.  Take the time to observe your child, their routine, their interactions in the play-ground, what they speak of.  Oftentimes, you will see the source of the problem straight away through simply watching them.

Anxiety is simply another emotion that your child will need to learn how to process.  Look at it from a positive viewpoint and not the negative way it may be affecting them.  Give your child the tools to use when anxious and they will be set-up for life!  If only as little ones, we were all taught how to deal with anxious thoughts!  I think the world would be a much calmer place.

And lastly, be patient.  This one I admit, I found difficult with Milly, as from our perspective, she took a long time to work through her night-time fears.  Often it was a case of one step forward and three back.  However, when she finally understood that there was nothing to be concerned about, the strength of her conviction was outstanding.  And the experience she has gained from that space enables her to deal with anxiety much better in the present.

As parents, we are constantly training our kid’s hearts and anxiety is just another way of showing them how to journey through this emotion.  If you look at it from that perspective, it isn’t the beast it always appears to be in the beginning!






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