I expected my 7-year-old to feel anxious for the first few days at her new school, but after two weeks of her coming home happier than ever, I was shocked to find her making excuses not to go to school.
Anxiety in childhood is comparatively common and affects about 1 in 8 children. As a teacher, I know that children often show their emotions in ways that may seem completely unrelated to whatever is making them feel uneasy. If you suspect your child may be experiencing anxiety, here are some things to watch for, according to the National Health Service (NHS).
1. Becoming Irritated Or Angry Easily
2. Complaining Of Stomach Aches Or Feeling Ill
The connection between the gut and emotions is real. According to an article from Harvard Medical School, stomach issues can be caused by depression, stress, and anxiety.
This was the biggest piece of the puzzle for us. My daughter claimed she was sick every few days. Since it was the beginning of the school year and all kinds of viruses were going around, we allowed her to stay home. However, we noticed that she behaved normally throughout the day. Not a sniffle, sore throat, or fever in sight.
3. Not Eating Properly Or Normally
This symptom can go hand-in-hand with the previous one. It’s common for eating habits to be unusual when someone feels sick.
In hindsight, I realized that my daughter was eating less than usual. This was especially odd because I know that her new teacher prioritizes movement and takes the class outside an additional one to two times every day. So, my daughter should have been eating more.
Because anxiety triggers the fight-flight-freeze response, it can be difficult for people who feel anxious to regulate their emotions. They may have large reactions to minor inconveniences. This can be particularly difficult to spot in kids because they struggle to regulate themselves at the best of times.
As a teacher, I’ve noticed that anger is sometimes accompanied by unexpected or prolonged crying and unusual clinginess in younger children. This behavior, though maddening, is often their subconscious way of trying to regulate themselves and help themselves feel safe, much like a baby is soothed by attention and physical contact.
4. Not Sleeping Well Or Having Bad Dreams
One of the most frustrating parts about experiencing anxiety is that worrisome thoughts can keep you–or your child–up at night. And if you do finally drift off, there’s no guarantee that a nightmare won’t wake you. But without proper sleep, managing the anxious feelings becomes even more difficult, and the cycle perpetuates.
What Worked For Us
After one trying morning, I was called to the school because my daughter wouldn’t stop crying and claimed she was sick even though she had been doing cartwheels in the living room just before we left for school. I was frustrated but started to wonder if something else was going on.
I had a brief discussion with my daughter. She told me everyone was kind and that she loved her new teacher, but she didn’t quite feel settled. That day, my husband and I were both home from work. Since she claimed to be sick, our original plan was to have her stay in bed all day, but we changed our minds.
Instead, she came with us to run errands, and we took her out for lunch. Since she loves to write, we let her pick out a journal and whatever pencil she wanted at the dollar store. When we came home, I explained how she could write or draw her feelings in it so they don’t stay inside her body and make her feel sick. I also sent a quick note to her teacher explaining the situation. Now, writing in her journal undisturbed is part of her nightly routine. And we haven’t had any issues since.
More Solutions For Addressing Anxiety In Children
1. Ask the right questions.
A certain amount of short-term anxiety is normal for everyone. Have a discussion with your child. Clark Goldstein, a child and youth psychologist specializing in mood disorders, advises against asking leading questions, such as “Are you worried about your spelling test?” Instead, try open-ended questions like: “How are you feeling about your spelling test?”
Unsure of the difference? Think of it this way: If your question can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no,” it’s a leading question. The goal is to allow your child to articulate their feelings without outside influence.
2. Model or explicitly teach ways to manage anxiety.
Have a big presentation coming up? Or an important meeting? Discuss it with your child or family and show them how you handle it.
This could mean that you need to find ways to manage your own anxiety first. “Kids are perceptive,” says Goldstein, “and they’re going to take it in if you keep complaining on the phone to a friend that you can’t handle the stress or the anxiety.”
Remember that what helps you may not help your child. Talk to trusted family members or your child’s teacher, or do a quick internet search for different ways to manage anxiety. It may take time to find the right strategy, but learning to manage anxiety is a life skill that will benefit your child for the rest of their lives.