Understanding Your Child’s Anxiety
by Jennifer Bradley, LPC
As a therapist for 25 years, I have had the privilege to work with adults and children of all ages, and I have been seen some changes in our children’s mental health. This generation has a problem, and it’s anxiety.
There is a cloud of anxiety that is hovering over our children for so many reasons: the pandemic and the premature introduction to death, wars, homeland terrorism, the opioid/drug epidemic, major political unrest, racial division, riots… and that’s just in the last two years. Whew!
Kids have so much exposure to these stressors through the internet because of social media. Bullying has become a relentless issue and is linked to an alarming increase in child suicide. Pressure to succeed in school, sports and other activities are leaving children overwhelmed and overstimulated. Childhood has never been more complicated.
As adults we are not immune to these issues. However, we have the capacity to process and understand these issues and adjust. Children have no reference point for their stressors. Unfortunately, childhood anxiety is usually a predictor of an adult anxiety disorder, so as parents, we need to help our children identify and cope with these stressors.
As a mother of three daughters, I am constantly trying to help them identify their anxieties, adjust and thrive. Needless to say, as childhood has grown more complicated, so has parenting.
So what signs can alert parents that a child may be suffering with anxiety?
1. Physical symptoms – Sometimes, a stomachache is just a stomachache. But children who do not fully understand their own emotions may process anxiety through physical symptoms. When a child complains of a headache or stomachache, or simply says “I don’t feel good” in the morning before school, anxiety may be the cause. Anxious children often don’t sleep well, so fatigue and fussiness can also be signs that a child is worried or afraid.
2. Resistance – At times, children just don’t want to follow their parents’ wishes. But sometimes, the child who seems to be non-compliant or defiant may be actively resisting something they fear. A child who refuses to leave a parent’s side may have separation anxiety. A child who refuses to go to school may suffer from social anxiety. Resistance to activities that cause discomfort, such as homework, can indicate that a child has a strong fear of failure. Resistance to participating in events or groups can indicate that the child fears rejection or humiliation. As parents, the sooner we can identify the reason that a child is resistant, the sooner we can help them learn to cope.
3. Outburst, defiance, rebellion or disrespect – When children are overstimulated, their nervous systems can get stuck in a “fight or flight” response. They may move from resistance to defiance to avoid the stressor that is causing the anxiety. As humans, we’re hard-wired to move away from anything we perceive as a threat to our safety; thus, an acutely anxious child may not be capable of being cooperative or even reasonable. In this situation, we may find as parents that we cannot persuade, plead or even threaten a child to change their behavior. Before a child can switch off this “fight or flight” response, they must perceive that they are safe… that they have moved away from the stimulus that has made them feel threatened.
As parents, we know it’s our job to hold our children accountable and let them learn self-control. However, we also need to consider how the pandemic, social media and other stressors are impacting their emotional health and increasing their uncertainties and fears. Understanding the signs of anxiety can be helpful in identifying the underlying cause of your child’s behaviors. When we help children learn to identify and manage their emotions, we are giving them the tools to understand their own behavior and self correct.
Jennifer Bradley, LPC, provides parenting support, as well as professional counseling for families and individuals of all ages. Most insurance accepted. Contact her at Jennifer@cjfsbham.org or 205.879.3438.