Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

15 Things Kids or Teens Say That Could Mean ‘I’m Anxious’ – Where They Come From And How to Respond

510,591 views

How Can I Tell if My Child is Anxious?

Anxiety can be a shady character and can often appear in ways that don’t look like anxiety. Because of this, it can be difficult to know when your child is anxious. Anxiety has been doing its thing since the beginning of humans, and it’s brilliant at it. What it’s not so great at is announcing its presence in gentle, clear ways that preserve the capacity for any of us to meet it with a strong, steady, ‘Oh, there you are,’ and an even more powerful, ‘It’s okay, I’m safe – you don’t need to be here right now’. 

Anxiety in Children – Why Does Anxiety Happen?

Anxiety is the work of a strong, healthy brain that’s a little overprotective. It comes from a part of the brain called the amygdala, which keeps us safe by getting us ready to fight for our lives or run for it. The amygdala is instinctive, so if it thinks there might be danger, it will act first and think later – and the unfamiliar, the unknown, humiliation, embarrassment, separation from important people, can all count as danger. When the amygadala is triggered, it initiates a surge of neurochemicals to make us stronger, faster, more powerful, and more physically able to deal with a threat. Sometimes, the amygdala can work a little too hard and hit the alarm button too often when it doesn’t need to. It is NOT a broken brain, but a strong, healthy, capable brain that’s working a little too hard and being a little too overprotective.

Back when the threats we humans faced were mostly physical, the most anxious of us probably would have been the most likely to survive. An anxious brain would have made us more alive to any threats, which would given us the survival edge. Now, the dangers we face are less physical threats and more psychological ones. We no longer face the possibility of being dinner for a furry predator, but we do face very real psychological threats such as failure, rejection, exclusion, humiliation, disconnection from the people we care about – and the list goes on. The brain still fires up in response to threat, exactly as it’s mean to, but when the threats are psychological stressors, the fight or flight response doesn’t serve us so well. When there is nothing to fight or flee, there’s nothing to burn the fight or flight neurochemicals that surge through us, so they build up and cause the symptoms of anxiety. 

Anxiety can sound like …

When children are anxious, it can be difficult for them to articulate exactly what’s happening for them. It will be clear that something isn’t quite right, but it might not be as obvious that anxiety is behind it. Here are some of the things kids might say when they’re feeling anxious. Of course, just because they say any of these doesn’t mean anxiety is making the push, but it might. The key is to be open to the possibility, so if it is anxiety that’s breaking their stride, you can come in and provide the support they need to feel safe, secure and ready to take on the world again. If you hear any of these, notice when they happen. If they happen regularly in the same environment, before the same thing, after the same thing, and with other symptoms of anxiety (such as racey heart, sick tummy, avoidance, clammy skin, tension, headache), anxiety might be behind it. The clues will be in the regularity, timing or intensity.

1.  I feel sick, like I’m going to vomit.

During anxiety, anything that isn’t absolutely essential for survival slows down to conserve energy for fight or flight. Blood flow is directed from the abdominal organs to the brain, and digestion slows. This can feel like butterflies or nausea. This is a very normal part of anxiety and completely safe, but it can feel awful. Sometimes it can lead to its own anxiety about vomiting. If this is something you tend to hear before or during similar experiences (such as separation from you or before school), and there doesn’t seem to be any other signs of illness, be open to the possibility that anxiety is behind it. Help your child make sense of what they are feeling by explaining where their nausea is coming from. Here are some words that can help:

That sick feeling is something that happens when your strong, healthy brain thinks there is something it needs to protect you from. It doesn’t mean there is anything unsafe there, but sometimes brains can get a little overprotective. This is called anxiety and it happens to lots of people. Anxiety comes from a part of the brain called the amygdala. It’s kind of like your own fierce warrior, there to protect you. If your amygdala thinks there might be trouble, it gets you ready to fight or flee the danger. Sometimes, your amygdala can be a little overprotective and get you ready for fight or flight even though there’s no need. It does this by surging your body with a special body fuel to make you stronger, faster and more powerful – kind of like a superhero. This is a great thing if there is something you need to get away from, but if there’s nothing to fight or flee, there’s nothing to burn the special body fuel surging through you and it can build up and make you feel sick.

Something else that happens when your amygdala thinks there’s danger is that it sends a message to your body to save energy, in case you need to fight or flee. One of the ways it does this is by slowing down digestion – the process that gets the nutrients out of the food you eat. Don’t worry – this is completely safe, even though it might feel awful.

When you know that sick feeling is from your brain trying to protect you, there’s something very powerful you can do to feel better. It’s strong steady breathing. This sends a message to your amygdala that you’re safe, so it knows to stop surging you with the special body fuel. When this happens, the sick feeling will start to go away.

Strong, steady breathing will neutralise the fight or flight neurochemicals that can cause nausea. The trick is to make sure they practise strong steady breathing when they are calm, because an anxious brain is a busy brain and it will be less able to do anything unfamiliar. One way to practise is with hot cocoa breathing. Ask them to pretend they are holding a delicious cup of hot cocoa. Smell the warm, chocolatey smell for three, hold it for one, then blow it cool for three.

2.  I’m not hungry.

When digestion shuts down to conserve energy for fight or flight, the need to eat gets shut down along with it. This is only temporary and will switch on again when the anxiety eases. (Unless of course you’re offering something that makes their taste buds slam the door in disgust, you know, like anything served on the yellow plate instead of the blue one.)

3.  My tummy hurts.

Anxiety can hit tummies hard. With any pain, it’s always important to make sure there’s nothing else driving the symptoms but when abdominal pain doesn’t have any other physical explanation, it’s possible that anxiety is the culprit. Other clues that anxiety might be driving the pain include the timing (does it happen before or during something that is likely to trigger anxiety), and the presence of other symptoms of anxiety (racey heart, nausea, tense muscles, clammy skin, flushed cheeks, avoidance etc). The brain and gut are intimately connected. What happens in the brain can affect the gut, and vice versa. Anxiety can send signals directly from the brain to the gut, causing tummy trouble. Anxiety can also influence the gastrointestinal tract to move and contract in ways that cause pain. Tummy pain without any identifiable physical cause is so common that it has a name – functional abdominal pain. The pain is very real and can be quite severe. It’s usually around the belly button, but not always. Tummy pain that is driven by anxiety is best dealt with by continuing as usual, and not avoiding whatever might be triggering the anxiety. The brain learns from experience, so avoidance will make avoidance more likely. Similarly, brave behaviour will make a brave response more likely. Avoidance teaches the brain that the only way to stay safe is to avoid. This can shrink their world and lead to bigger problems, particularly when the anxiety is around school or separation from you.

4.  I don’t want to go to school.

Anxiety doesn’t always seem rational, but that’s because it comes from a part of the brain that runs on instinct. During fight or flight, the thinking, rational part of the brain shuts down enough so as not to interrupt the fight or flight response. If the brain thinks survival is on the line, it doesn’t want you to take too much time thinking about what the options are – it just wants to get you safe. This is why school refusal can happen even when there seem to be no other issues with school, friends or teachers. When anxiety switches on, nothing else will matter and all your child will be aware of is that school feels like a big dose of trouble, even if they can’t explain why. Giving them the information about how anxiety works will help them feel safe enough to be brave enough. Again, it’s really important not to let anxiety drive avoidance. It makes so much sense to avoid the places that feel unsafe, but as the adults in their lives we need to believe that they can cope, even when everything in us is wanting to scoop them up and away from whatever is triggering their anxiety. The more they are exposed to brave behaviour – and doing things that feed anxiety is always brave – the more they will learn they can be brave when they need to. 

5.  Anything angry.

The ‘flight’ part of anxiety shows itself as avoidance, but there is also the ‘fight’ part which can show itself as anger or tantrums. During anxiety, the surging of fight or flight neurochemicals energise the body for fight or flight. Sometimes that energy comes out as anger. As well as this, the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for anxiety), is also involved in dealing with big emotions. When the amygdala is highly active, as it is during anxiety, it means other emotions (such as anger) will also be switched to high volume. When kids are under the influence of an anxious brain, their behaviour has nothing to do with wanting to push against the limits. They are often great kids who don’t want to do the wrong thing. It’s not bad behaviour, it’s anxiety. When anxiety is driving behaviour, it’s important to treat the behaviour as anxiety rather than bad behaviour. Any shame kids might feel for their behaviour will only drive their anxiety harder – they want to do the right thing and they don’t want to disappoint you. This isn’t intended to give them a free pass. They still need to know where the limits are, and they still need to feel the edges of those limits but it’s important to do it gently and by giving them the information they need to make better choices. They want to do the right thing, but as with all of us, sometimes that can take a little wisdom and a lot of practice.

6.  ‘I feel really sad and I don’t know why.’ (Or just tears. Lots of tears.)

Again, the same part of the brain that is in charge of anxiety – the amygdala – also controls big emotions. When anxiety is high, sadness can be too. It isn’t necessarily a sign that something sad has happened. During anxiety, tears are a sign of a brain on high alert. Just be a strong, steady, loving presence, and know that the sadness will pass when the anxiety does. Let the tears come if they need to, and when things settle, explain how sadness and anxiety can happen together. Research has found that crying can be healing when people have emotional support, and if their tears led to a new wisdom about whatever it was that caused them to cry in the first place. 

7.  ‘But what if …. What if … What if.

Anxiety is the sign of a brain that is being hauled into the future. The what-ifs are an attempt by an anxious brain to stay safe by turning as many unknowns into knowns as they can. Help them to find their own scaffold between their anxious thoughts and a brave response by asking them what they think will happen. This will activate the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is more rational, considered, and able to calm big emotions. During anxiety, the activity in the pre-frontal cortex decreases, making it more difficult for it to influence the instinctive, emotional amygdala. You might need to prompt them by asking them to reflect on what has happened in similar situations in the past – either it’s never happened before, or if it has, they got through it. Recent research has found that the ability to inhibit worrying thoughts depends on an important chemical in the brain called GABA. One of the best ways to increase GABA is with regular exercise. 

8.  I need to pee … again.

The fight or flight neurochemicals can cause the need to pee. We know it happens, but it’s not clear why. One theory is that during anxiety, the central nervous system is geared to be more sensitive, so it takes less to activate the emptying of the bladder. Another theory is that during anxiety, muscles tighten and one of these may be the bladder, causing the feeling of a full bladder and the need to empty it. If this is a common symptom for your child, it can create an anxiety in itself by feeding into the worry that there won’t be the opportunity to go to the toilet if they need to. Again, explain to them how anxiety can cause this. Also let them know that when they manage the anxiety, the urge to pee will stop showing up with a grand ‘ta-da’ at the worst times.

9.  I can’t sleep.

An anxious brain can get busy at any time, but its favourite time to play is when there isn’t much else going on. At bedtime, there’s nothing else to distract from anxious thoughts. Try a mindful meditation to give your child something to focus on other than their anxious thoughts. (Try Smiling Mind which is a free app, backed by loads of ongoing research.) Another way to help anxious kiddos find calm at bedtime is to give them a job to do. Ask them to put a soft toy animal next to them so they’re snuggled against it. The idea is for them to concentrate on being still and gentle enough so as not to wake their furry friend. Ask them to concentrate on their breathing and their body while they do this. This is a form of mindfulness that will help to relax their mind and body.

10.  My legs hurt. My arms hurt.

During anxiety, fuel is sent to the muscles so they can fight or flee. This can make arms and legs feel tight, wobbly or achey. Explain how anxiety can cause this so they can understand that the pain is not a sign of a bigger problem. Often with anxiety, kids might not realise they’re tensing until they feel what ‘relaxed’ feels like. To help them manage their ache or tension, guide them through a progressive muscle relaxation. Starting from their feet ask them to tighten them for a few seconds, then relax. Slowly work up through the rest of the body, muscle by muscle, tensing then relaxing. This will give them a sense of what it’s like to feel relaxed … which will feel lovely.

11.  But I don’t want to sit still.

Anxiety feels flighty. The fight or flight neurochemicals that surge the body during anxiety are there to get the body ready for action. When there is no need to fight or flight, there is nothing to burn off the neurochemicals that are driving your child to wriggle or squirm. When this happens, encourage your child to move – walk, run on the spot, go up and down the stairs. Let them know this will help them be the boss of their (very excellent) brain, which will help them be the boss of their restless body. When the neurochemicals start to disappear, so will the wriggles.

12.  But I can’t do it!

 Anxiety can drive perfectionism. Anxiety comes from a brain that thinks there might be trouble – and humiliation, failure – or anything that might come from making a mistake counts as trouble. The key is to provide opportunities for your child to learn they can fail, fall or stumble – and still be okay. When they don’t do as well as they expected, make it about what they’ve learned from the experience (and there will be great learnings they can be applauded for), rather than focusing on the loss. It’s about nurturing their mindset towards recognising the opportunities, lessons or growth, rather than the losses. Also, be mindful of how you deal with your own failures. Are you able to laugh off your mistakes or failures? Can you extract the wisdom without dwelling on the loss? Kids will always learn what they see more deeply than what they are told.

13.  I want to stay with you.

There is nothing wrong with your kiddos wanting to stay close, but it becomes a problem when it starts causing problems. Separation anxiety is driven by a fear that something might happen to you while you are away from them. The fear of leaving you will be real, but it will also be temporary. Their anxiety will ease as soon as they have the opportunity to realise you aren’t there and that they are still okay so the sooner this can happen, the sooner they can find calm. Their distress on separation from you might keep happening for a while, and although this is distressing for both of you (I’ve been there), that distress comes from the emotional memory of the actual point separation. Our emotional memories are powerful, and they are triggered automatically and instantly. If drop-offs are distressing, these memories will be powerful and easily activated whenever they are in the same situation. The good news is that the brain learns from experience, so the more experience they have with finding calm after saying goodbye, the quicker they’ll learn that they’ll soon feel okay. This is why it’s so important not to drag out a tough goodbye, and I know how tough they can be (and I’ve also dragged them out – we’re only human and it’s going to happen). When they become upset, let them know that you understand how difficult it can be. It’s important that they feel validated. Then, give them a cuddle and then let the goodbye be quick and confident. If you hesitate, they’ll hesitate too. Similarly, if you believe they’ll be okay, they’ll be more likely to believe it too. Their brain is telling them they aren’t safe – they need ‘borrow’ your calm and your belief that they can cope and do brave, hard things. 

14.  I’m tired.

Anxiety can keep kids awake at night with intrusive thoughts, and the physiology of anxiety can be exhausting. Putting themselves out there when everything in them is telling them to retreat is tiring – and brave. Mindfulness will help strengthen them against anxiety and the physical consequences that come with it. Mindfulness lowers activity in the amygdala (the initiator of anxiety) and increases activity in the pre-frontal cortex (the ‘calm down, we’ve got this’ part of the brain).

15.  Nobody wants to play with me.

This might be a sign of an issue in the playground, but it can also be a sign of an anxious child who is holding back. Kids with anxiety will often hold back from including themselves in the playground, at least until they feel safe with a group. When it isn’t clear whether or not they’ll be accepted (however kind the other kids are), anxious kids will more likely wait until they’re asked, because any threat of being misunderstood or rejected will feel too big. Importantly though, kids who are anxious are often very well-liked by their peers. Their sensitivity, empathy and emotional intelligence makes them pretty great friends to have – and once they’ve connected with them, other kids know it too. All those other kids need is the opportunity to know them.

And finally …

Children and teens will always know when something isn’t right inside them, but sometimes it can be hard to find the words. As the adults in their lives who love them, the feelings of helplessness when we see them struggling can be seismic. When we can understand what’s happening, we can start to give them the safety and comfort of helping them to make sense of what they are experiencing. By doing this, we can steady the ground beneath them so they can feel safe enough and brave enough to keep exploring their world, influencing it, and establishing their very important place in it.


A Book for Kids About Anxiety …

‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations. (See here for the trailer.)

 


 

Like this article?

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly round up of our best articles

77 Comments

Kassie

My daughter (4th grader) has absolutely every one of these symptoms. She has been having a really y hard time in her math class with her teacher. Do you think that a child psychologist woukd help. It’s really close to the end of the school year so so I woukd hate to take her out. Thanks so much for posting this article.

Reply
Karen Young

Kassie if the symptoms seem more isolated to a particular environment, such as math class, it’s important to see if there is something happening there that might be contributing to her anxiety. Is there something about the class? The teacher? The content? Of course it may be none of these, but it’s worth investigating. A therapist can help her to develop strategies to manage her anxiety, but it’s important that you also work alongside the psychologist. A therapist will only have your daughter for a short while each week, so it will fall to you to coninue supporting her and help her to learn these strategies. You will find plenty of ways to do this on this link https://www.heysigmund.com/?s=anxiety+children

Reply
C

Because of the way my anxiety was (or wasnt) dealt with when I was a child I still have difficulty to this day. Believe it or not this article has helped me now as an adult! Thank you.😆

Reply
Jackie

Very useful article. I recognise these symptoms in my 4 year son due to recent incident at school. We are re assuring him and encouraging him ourselves and getting support from the teaching staff and dinner lady. He had a panic attack when felt something was stuck in his throat after lunch in the playground. He was very upset and had a temperature. School informed us and also called for an ambulance as a precaution to take him to hospital. It was viral tonsillitis, tonsils had swollen but not infected. Since this happened he’s not wanting to go to school, feeling sick not wanting to eat lunch of fear of it happens again, tearful as I drop him off in the morning. He’s started to make some progress and eaten some of his lunch today but I know it will take time to regain his confidence.

Reply
Kim

My GOSH!!!
After 12 years of heartache and asking ‘why me?’, I think I have just discovered the problem with my daughter!!! Is anxiety hereditary? (as her dad suffers from severe anxiety)
The problem I have is that she REFUSES point blank to get any help from a counselor or phsychologist and REFUSES to even take homeopathic meds to maybe help her with her moods. She won’t even take vitamins or even let me take my herbal stress tablets (to help me to cope with her moods). She says that nothing and no one is going to change her and that she doesn’t need any help. I feel like I am completely exhaused and beyond dealing with her constant negativity and instant, outrageous mood swings. She has been like this her whole life… What on earth can I do to fix it? I’m at the point of even wanting to sneak medication into her food and hide it from her just to try and help 🙁 Please help me

Reply
Karen Young

Anxiety does seem to run in families, but it’s likely this is a little about genes and a little about environment. It’s important to keep in mind that genes aren’t destiny – anxiety can be managed. Anxiety might be passed down but often so are some extraordinary qualities – people with anxiety tend to be emotionally intelligent, brave, in tune with what’s happening around them, open-hearted, intelligent and very capable at whatever they put their minds too.

At 12, your daughter is also entering adolescence, so this will also factor in to her behaviour. You might see her negativity or mood swings getting worse for a while. She is at the age where she is exploring her independence and who she is going to be. It’s her job to push against you. This doesn’t mean she can disrespect you, and it’s important to let her know that’s unacceptable, but it’s likely that in relation to her decisions about the things that affect her, the more you push, the harder she’ll push back. Let her know that you’re there for her if she wants your support, but otherwise if you can and if it’s safe to, let her have some room to make her own decisions. She will be more likely to come to you for support if she feels like it’s her decision, and not something you’re ‘making her do’. This can be incredibly frustrating as a parent – I get it! – but if you can yield a little, it’s more likely that she will stop pushing to hold her line, and that’s when you can have more influence.

Reply
Ruth

Anxiety is hereditary. I have it and so do my 4 kids. I researched about it a lot and I’d definitely hereditary.

Reply
Karen Young

Anxiety is likely to be a little bit nurture and a little bit nature. The most important thing to remember is that genes aren’t destiny. Anxiety can definitely be managed. Just because it is in your genes, doesn’t mean it will always be intrusive.

Reply
Paulette Smith

Thank you for sharing your story. My 28 year old, son has been going through the exact samething. He has a record playing in his head full of negative self talk. His anxiety and depression started five years ago, but it has intesified this past year. He won’t take any medication and he does not think therapy will help. Meanwhile, he lives in the past mentally, he does not see a future, and he can’t sleep. I have tried everything. I am seeking help for him!

The information provided on anxiety is very helpful.

I hope you and your daughter find the path forward successfully.

Reply
Ashley

We have been dealing with this with our oldest daughter, 10, for a year now. Seems to rear its ugly head end of December thru March… we are in the throws of it now… the can’t go to sleep because brain won’t turn off….. we have tried everything. Melotonin at 2.5 mg seems to help her drift off but only if she is not too heightened…. and the clingliness..we will get through this.. its just draining on everyone. I feel for her the most.

Reply
Natalie

Hi my you year old has child anxiety and ADHD, I have found some really good ways to help her sleep better, on u Tube they have loads of different types of meditation and hypnosis music and stories. My daughter loves them and they do help.

Reply
Esther Tarkieltaub

Thank you for an excellent article. As a Social Thinking provider, working with parents and children who suffer from anxiety I found this article most useful.

Catching anxious children at an early age is crucial. I am working with a girl who is able to identify what triggers her anxiety. We have developed techniques to help her calm down. We call it her anxiety tool box. She decides which tool to use in a variety of situations.

The issue of anxiety comes up in my social skills groups and as a group we strategize and talk about the whys and what practical steps we can take to ease the anxiety “monster” as one child names it in our head.

Looking forward to receiving your posts.

Esther Tarkieltaub,LBS1 Social ThinkingR Provider
etlearningconnections@gmail.com

Reply
Scott Milne

Beautifully written, thanks. There are two other things that are missing. Sometimes anxiety can be based on something that needs to be dealt with, this is why it is important to allow a safe place for a child to talk about what is causing their concerns. This means listening and trying not to react too quickly to anything that is said, this is importantly because the child may be testing to see if they can tell you something that they may feel uncomfortable about. If you react too quickly they may stop talking. By listening carefully they will feel heard, and if the anxiety is based on those issues identified in the article then the approaches identified will be very valuable. It will also show that you are a safe listener and open the door for any issues of concern in the future to be raised. If there is a concern that you can deal with like bullying, abuse, unable to hear or see properly, or some other issue, then that can be identified and support provided. The other potential is that in some cases anxiety can be neurological, it may be caused by epilepsy or Tourette Syndrome or a wide range of other medical issues. Again by listening carefully and taking notice of what is happening, other signs of concern could be identified and early assistance found.

Reply
Nicola

This is so amazingly helpful I have a very anxious 7 year old and as a parent it’s been heartbreaking trying to figure out the best way to approach it. Thank you this is fantastic!

Reply
Terri

A very helpful article. My 10 year old son suffers from general and separation anxiety along with ADHD. He was diagnosed at 7 years old. He does struggle from day to day at school and some days are better than others. He has to have his day structured or it all goes to pot. Always make the school aware for their support too. I was told it was because he was very premature and had a very low birth weight?

Reply
Karen Young

It’s not clear exactly what causes anxiety, but it’s likely to be a mix of genes and environment. (One thing is for certain – parents DON’T cause anxiety.) There are many kids who were born with a low birth weight who don’t have anxiety, and plenty of kids who were born at full term, with an average birth weight who do have anxiety.

Reply
Polly C

Thank you for this excellent article. It’s nice to hear some positive phrases when the word anxiety is being used!! My 10 year old daughter was in hospital last week with ‘Globus’ which is a symptom caused by excessive Adrenalin due to stress. We think the main cause has been bullying. She has been given melatonin but i’m Concerned about using it at this age with puberty round the corner, so trying rescue remedy instead. Finding a new school is our main concern at the moment, and realising these things take time to recover from. Wishing all parents dealing with this lots of love as it’s the toughest thing to cope with, and being on my own with twins makes it difficult because I have to ensure her sister isn’t being too affected by the situation as well!

Reply
Linda

This hits home on some many points with my 12 year old son. Thank you for this article and appreciate reading the comments, there are so many I can relate to. This article explains it all so well. I would love to read about depression in kids as well I’ve been told that anxiety and depression often go together.

Reply

Leave a Reply

We’d love to hear what you’re thinking ...

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Stay Connected



Contact Me

karen@heysigmund.com














Hey Warrior - A book about anxiety in children.











Pin It on Pinterest

Share This