Child Anxiety More Complex Than Disruptive Behaviors

Many people experience anxiety symptoms on a daily basis without even knowing. It presents as a protective mechanism to keep us safe and alert us to potential danger.

However, an overactive brain (more specifically, the amygdala) can leave one crippled by the symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety is extremely common amongst children and teenagers, affecting approximately 1 in 3.

Having anxiety does not mean that your child or child’s brain is broken, defective, or unable to live a happy and healthy life; it means your child’s brain is working in overdrive and is having a difficult time understanding that the world around them is safe.

Anxiety is typically associated with excessive worry, and because of a developing brain, it can be difficult to calm the concerns, fears, and worries present. If left untreated, anxiety can potentially lead to a lifetime of maladaptive coping skills.

[pullquote-left]“You can help by creating a safe and secure environment for your child to share openly of their experience and feelings.”[/pullquote-left]

Because anxiety has the ability to manifest itself differently within each person, it can be arduous as a parent to identify anxiety from other widespread concerns. Furthermore, your child may not have the language for anxiety or have the ability to recognize what that experience is like for them. They can identify that something isn’t quite right and feels wrong or off, but may not have the knowledge that anxiety is behind those feelings and symptoms.

How can I tell if my child has anxiety? First, pay attention to the timing, intensity, and frequency of the presenting concerns. Are they presenting after an experience that was embarrassing for your child, prior to an upcoming event, in a particular environment, or before/after the same occurrence? Is it happening at the same time every day, before school, at bedtime? Look for patterns.

Next, be aware of symptoms. Anxiety can present as deep thoughts, fear, or excessive worry; however, because our mind and body are interconnected, it can also show via physical complaints, anger, or in familiar statements your child shares with you. Some things you can look for are:

• Headaches, body aches, stomachaches;
• Change in emotions – especially anger, irritability, aggression, restlessness, and sadness;
• Negative thinking, rigidity, over-exaggeration;
• Avoidance of a particular experience or place;
• Difficulty with bedtime;
• Increase of tantrums or regression to previous behaviors;
• Change in appetite; and/or
• Constantly seeking “what ifs” and “but, but, but.”

Children often feel unsafe because of anxiety, due to the unsettling and startling onset. It can be helpful to let them know they have the power to tell the anxiety that its presence is not necessary.

You can help by creating a safe and secure environment for your child to share openly of their experience and feelings. Because of the elasticity of the brain, your child has the capacity to learn skills to help regulate their nervous system and break the cycle of anxiety. Sometimes, the manifestations of anxiety are more than you/your family are able to manage – there is no shame in reaching out for assistance.

Heather Hahn and Melissa Gaa, licensed professional counselors, trauma informed yoga therapists, and co-owners of Aspen Counseling Services, treat individuals, couples, families, and groups. Visit

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