“My Tummy Hurts” was a phrase that I uttered on a regular basis growing up. To the point where my family started thinking I was just making excuses for not wanting to do things – go to school, go to church, clean my room, etc. In fact, I was told I was lazy and making excuses so much, that I started to believe it was true. Was I just lazy? Did I just not want to do things, so I lied about my stomach hurting?
Looking back now, I see SO many early signs of anxiety in myself. I’ve learned through therapy that children do not say “I have anxiety”. They will say things like “My head hurts” or “My stomach hurts”. Most young children do not have the vocabulary to verbalize anxiety, so they describe the physical feelings anxiety brings.
I want to go over some of the less obvious signs of anxiety in children, and talk about the ways you can help. Being able to empathize with your child and teach them proper coping/regulation skills is detrimental doing the development stage.
It is very common for kids to seem very moody when they are experiencing anxiety. Anxiety is known for causing irritability in both children and adults. This irritability can be hard for a child to express, so to the outside eye, they just appear moody.
2. Avoidance/ Being Distant.
Sometimes children can start to isolate from their friends and family as they are experiencing anxiety. From personal experience, this is typically due to the shame and fear that comes with anxiety. As a child, I didn’t want to bother anyone with my problems. I thought I had to face them alone. I didn’t want to worry anyone, and I didn’t want to be a burden. If you notice your kid pulling away, sit down and have a conversation with them about how you will be there and support them through anything. Remind them that they are not, and will not ever be a burden.
3. Loss of appetite.
Physical symptoms are extremely common with anxiety, one of the most common one being stomach aches and gastrointestinal issues. Because of the constant stomach aches, it can be hard to keep an appetite throughout the day. You may notice them avoiding food altogether, or they may abstain from eating all day, and binge at night. Nutrition is very important when it comes to mental health, so if you notice your child having a lack of an appetite, try to ensure they are eating healthy foods when you can.
4. Excessive crying.
This one can be tricky, because, as we all know, kids cry. Its normal, especially for very young children, to cry when they are hungry, tired, upset, scared, etc. However, if you notice excessive crying from your child, for small issues that wouldn’t normally bother someone, you may want to speak to their doctor about therapy.
5. Skipping school
School can be a source of anxiety for a lot of kids, so the solution seems simple…don’t go. Unfortunately a lot of kids with school related anxiety will end up dropping out. Bullying is a huge source of school related anxiety. If your kid is skipping school, investigate to see if there might be a bullying problem at their school.
6. Trouble Sleeping
Anxiety can cause racing thoughts, adrenaline rushes, and physical pain which can prevent someone from getting proper sleep.
7. Trouble concentrating
Because of the racing thoughts, a lot of people, especially children, experience trouble concentrating while experiencing anxiety. This is typically due to the amount of adrenaline in your system, and the intrusive thoughts that come with anxiety.
8. Needing constant validation
Neediness and seeking validation are common symptoms of anxiety in children, and understandably so. Anxiety is scary enough for an adult, but as a child it is terrifying. Knowing you are loved and safe is important for learning how to cope through anxiety.
9. Frequent stomach aches/ head aches
As I discussed earlier, physical symptoms are extremely common in people experiencing anxiety. A lot of children report having frequent head aches and stomach aches, and some even experience severe gastrointestinal issues. Speaking to your child’s doctor is important if you notice these symptoms in your child, together you guys can come up with a plan to help treat the anxiety, which will in turn treat the physical symptoms.
10. Obsessive question asking
With anxiety, comes fear of the unknown. A lot of children with anxiety will repeatedly ask questions, usually in regards to their safety or surroundings. This is a way of getting the reassurance and validation they need to feel safe.
So, that all sounds exhausting right? Well, here are some ways you can help alleviate some of the stress in your child’s life.
1. Show empathy
When your child is experiencing anxiety, the LAST thing they need to hear is that they shouldn’t be worrying. That will not help the situation, and will in turn make your child feel as if they are overreacting and it will invalidate their feelings.
2. Do not try to avoid stressful situations
Learning HOW to cope with stress is an extremely important skill for children to learn, as one day, they will be grown, and they wont have you there to shelter them anymore. That will be a very difficult wake up call for them to have. Instead of avoiding stressful situations, help your child through them by teaching them proper coping/regulation skills, as well as grounding techniques. This will set your child up for success when they inevitably experience anxiety and stress without you there.
4, Reassure them that worrying is normal
Do not try to tell them why they shouldn’t be worrying, instead explain that sometimes people have thoughts of worry. Explain that a thought of worry does not mean the worry will come true, it is just your bodies way of expressing fear or guilt.
5. Encourage logical thinking.
This one can be tricky, because you want to encourage logical thinking, WITHOUT making them feel as if they are not being logical. When they are beginning to experience anxiety, teach them to look at their fear and anxiety objectively. Teach them to look at the facts, instead of letting their head take over and tell them false truths.
6. Model Self Care
The absolute best way to teach your child to practice self care, is to actively practice it, everyday, in front of them. If you show them that self care is normal, it will feel a lot less uncomfortable for them to practice it in the future.
Remember, kids don’t say “I have Anxiety”. Remember they will tell you in other ways, you just need to know what to look for.
If you recognize any of these signs in your child, I would encourage you to reach out to their doctor and explain your concerns. Together you and your child’s doctor can come up with a game plan to help treat the anxiety.