Learning to recognize the behaviors and physical symptoms of childhood anxiety

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 6 US children between the ages of 6 and 17 experience a mental health disorder each year. 

Anxiety is a universal feeling, and as parents and caregivers, it’s our job to help our children understand what they are feeling, to know that they are not alone, and to show them different ways they can help heal themselves.

As a parent of a child with anxiety, I wished I had learned much earlier how to identify the common, and not so common signs of anxiety, so that I could have been more equipped to offer support while helping her manage her emotions.

Anxiety can be tricky to spot, as children may not be able to express why they’re experiencing such big emotions, but there are some key behaviors, physical symptoms, and worries to look out for. (I am not a doctor or medical professional. I am a mother who has a 9-year-old child that’s been battling anxiety since she was two.) 

Based on personal experiences with my daughter, I’ll share  tips to help in identifying signs of anxiety in your child, including changes in behavior, physical symptoms, and social media use.

By being aware of these signs, you can better support your child’s mental health and wellbeing. I always stress that it’s also crucial to talk with a healthcare professional who can help provide support and resources.

Changes in behavior

Changes in behavior are one of the most common signs of anxiety in children. Anxiety can cause a range of behavioral changes, and it’s important for parents to be aware of these changes so they can identify when their child might be struggling.

One common behavioral change is clinginess; anxious children may want to be close to their parents or caregivers at all times and may have a difficult time separating from them. Avoiding social situations is another behavior to look out for, as children with anxiety may feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed in large groups or around unfamiliar people.

Children with anxiety may have excessive worries or fears that are difficult to control or are out of proportion to the situation. For example, they may be afraid of going to school or being away from a parent.

Difficulty sleeping is also a common symptom, as anxious thoughts can keep children awake at night. Finally, irritability can be a sign of anxiety, as children may feel overwhelmed or frustrated by their emotions and have a hard time regulating their behavior.

Lastly, when a child feels overwhelmed, they may struggle to regulate their emotions leading to a tantrum. Not a run of the mill “I want this box of cookies” in the grocery store tantrum rather a tantrum that includes running away, fighting (physically), screaming, breaking things. This type of behavior can be brought on quickly and without warning.

If your child is experiencing tantrums, it’s important to remain calm and provide a safe environment for them to express their emotions. Try to identify any triggers or patterns that may be contributing to the tantrums, and work with your child to develop coping strategies to manage their emotions. This may include deep breathing exercises, physical activity, or talking with a trusted adult.

Physical symptoms

Children may not be able to describe how they feel emotionally, but they may complain of physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, or feeling sick.

Stomachaches are a very common physical symptom of childhood anxiety. Children may complain of pain in their stomach or abdomen, and this pain may be accompanied by nausea or a feeling of discomfort. Stomachaches can be caused by a variety of factors, including stress and anxiety. When children feel anxious, their bodies may release stress hormones that can lead to digestive problems.

Headaches are another physical symptom of childhood anxiety. These headaches may be mild or severe, and they may be accompanied by other symptoms such as sensitivity to light or sound. Headaches can be caused by a variety of factors, including tension, stress, and anxiety.

Feeling sick is another physical symptom of childhood anxiety. Children may feel like they are going to vomit or may experience other symptoms such as dizziness, sweating, or a racing heartbeat. These symptoms can be caused by the release of stress hormones in response to anxiety.

It’s important to note that physical symptoms alone do not necessarily mean that a child is experiencing anxiety. However, if these symptoms are persistent or occur in conjunction with other signs of anxiety, such as excessive worry, difficulty sleeping, or changes in behavior, it may be a good idea to speak with a healthcare professional.

Social media

Look at the type of content they are posting, liking, following, and hashtags they are using – look for anything overly negative.

Social media can be a powerful tool for connecting with others and sharing experiences, but it can also be a source of stress and anxiety, particularly for children and adolescents.

Children with anxiety may be drawn to negative or stressful content on social media, such as news stories, violent images, or content related to self-harm or suicide. They may also be more likely to engage with negative comments or arguments online, which can further fuel their anxiety.

Parents and caregivers should monitor their child’s social media use and be aware of any changes in their behavior or mood. If you notice that your child is spending an excessive amount of time on social media, or if they are posting or liking content that seems overly negative or concerning, it may be a sign that they are struggling with anxiety or other mental health issues.

It’s important to talk with your child about social media use and set clear boundaries and expectations around what is appropriate and safe. 

Encourage your child to use social media in positive ways, such as connecting with friends, sharing hobbies or interests, and finding supportive communities. 

Author Profile
Amanda Bacon Davis This Thing Has A Name
Amanda Bacon-Davis

Amanda Bacon-Davis is a two-time award-winning author, successful entrepreneur, and proud advocate for the mental health community. She has a beautiful daughter, Ella Rain, two amazing bonus kids (who are wonderful adults), a precious bonus grandbaby, and the most loving husband in the world. Amanda and her family live on the Seacoast of New Hampshire with their dog, Dog-Dog. This Thing Has A Name is her first children’s book.