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

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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.)

 


 

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122 Comments

Kristin

We face all of these anxiety issues on a daily basis. My daughter is in 4th grade and this anxiety and school refusal (hatred of school) has persisted for years. We do counseling, have help at school, handle things very similarly to the way you’ve laid out in the article, and yet things don’t get better. She doesn’t view school any more positively even after going and having a decent day. What else can I do? I am desperate for a solution. I feel like I keep “torturing” her in hopes that things will improve, but after 4 years they haven’t.

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Karen Young

Kristin keep going. The most important thing for now is that your daughter is still going to school. Is it something in particular about this school that she’s hating, or is it the idea of school generally? If it’s school generally, keep persisting and keep working with the school and the counsellor. Also, what is she like once she gets to school? Is the problem there all day, or mainly at dropoff and when she comes home? I understand this feels like your pushing her to do something she doesn’t want to do, but remember the reasons you’re doing this. You can see around corners that she can’t see around yet. Keep validating her and letting her talk to you, but also keep encouraging her towards brave behaviour, which for her is going to school. To help her anxiety generally, I would strongly encourage daily mindfulness. Mindfulness changes the structure and function of the brain in ways that strengthen it against anxiety.

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Carlene Mansfield

Kristin, my son suffered all through middle school with anxiety. We did counseling, kept open communication with his teachers, and constantly talked with our son and let him always express himself. He is now a happy young adult ~ he often tells us that our support and understanding really helped him and that he is much more appreciative of us now that he can look back on his life with a clearer view. We never felt we did enough for him in his younger years. It is nice to hear that even though he had issues when he was younger, that at least at home he felt loved and supported. Let your child express herself ~ don’t tell her “it will be okay”, because that is just brushing off her feelings. Empathize with her and ask her what you can do for her. It helps the child to know someone is listening without judging. Bless all of our children and young adults (and anyone) who suffers from anxiety.

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M Black

I think a lot of the time our children start school a year too early. Taking a year out is a great way to re-establish their foundations and get started on a more “ready” footing.

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Kelly

My daughter also went through this and it peaked in fourth grade. She begged me to homeschool her and so I did for fifth grade with the understanding that it was temporary. It was the best thing I could’ve done for her, gave her time to relax and recharge and she matured immensely over that year and has been doing amazingly well back in school in 6th grade. You might consider it if your situation allows.

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Carolyn

My daughter also suffers from Anxiety. Transitions were the hardest. When she entered Junior High it was very hard and we had to take her out and put her in a special school setting that was very small. This gave her a year to de stress and get ready for another small school but mainstream. Made the world of difference for her. She is now in her 3rd year of college and doing pretty good.

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Cynthia

Homeschool. That’s what I did from 4th – 8th grade. And yes, you can do it!!!! It gave our daughter a chance to just chill and learn in a relaxed environment. She became a completely different child, got an excellent education and had tons of fun with her other homeschool friends. She went to public high school and did just fine. She is 23 now and was a missionary for 5 years in Mexico, DR, Haiti and Africa. Just needed some time. Still has anxieties but has learned to handle them.

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Emelle

Maybe there’s nothing wrong with your daughter. Maybe the problem is school. I HATED school. I was anxious and stressed throughout the entire schooling process. I worked and still work hard to ensure it was/is a positive experience for my own children and yet… Perhaps the process of conditioning and institutionalizing just isn’t what it is purported to be for those of us with more individual tendencies… there are many who would disagree with me (and yet this just seems to prove me eight) but it’s just a thought…

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Melisa Downie

Try researching Homeschooling.
Teach your own by John Holt
School can wait by Raymond S. and Dorothy N Moore et al.
Homeschooling the Early years by Linda Dobson
The Successful Homeschool Family Handbook by Raymond and Dorothy Moore.
Last Child in the Woods. (Sorry cant remember the author) can be found at your local library.
There is much information to be gathered in these books even if you decide not to homeschool , but the benefits to your daughters emotional wellbeing are vast.
Hope you find your answers and your daughter improves.
Kind Regards
Melisa

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MK

We started using calming essential oils to help with our Kindergartener’s anxiety, he does seem better. You can find it online, I use Calm by Oilogic. We also use a Wellness blend by young living oils. ❤️

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Patty

Hi Kristin, I can totally relate to you. My 11 yr old son hated school..a struggle to get him there and either crying or pissed off when I picked him up..everyday. This was from Kindergarten up to 4th Grade. Long story short..we pulled him out of the public school and put him in a private catholic school (we are Lutheran;) in September to start 5th Grade. We have never looked back..he is absolutely thriving and has many good buddies on the basketball and football team! Loves going and always a big smile on his face picking him up. It’s been a life changer. Please don’t let the teachers, principle or even friends tell you what’s best for your child (I lost some Mom friends pulling him out) Do what is best for your daughter. You are in my prayers 😉 Patty

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Jen

Thank you for this article. I am going through what feels like a chronic and crisis situation with my 12 year old son. I thought he was struggling with anxiety and your article kind of confirms it. What I’m struggling with is that I can see that the more he avoids school the worse he feels but once he’s ‘decides’ he’s not going (or feels like he can’t) I CANNOT get him to move. We’ve had one full week of school since September. He’s getting behind due to missed lessons which is adding to the problem. How on earth do I handle this, especially when I just feel SO frustrated after all this time of me having to phone in to my work, trying to support and it feeling like we’re at a point that noone but him can do anything now. I know I need to be supportive but it’s so hard on a repetitive basis over 5 months solid plus the pressure of needing to have him in school. I can’t just pick him up and take him in like primary age!

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Kerrie Jaques

Hi Jen. I can sympathize as I have a 14 year old daughter who has similar symptoms. This may seem incredibly obvious but I’m going to say it anyways. Get him to your family doctor and, if possible, get him some counselling. I made the mistake of waiting until I found a note indicating she had thoughts of self harm and suicide. There is probably a LOT more going on in his head than not wanting to go to school.

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Karen Young

Jen I hear how difficult this is for both of you. You’re absolutely right – at 12 you can’t physically make him go, but the more he avoids it, the harder it will be for him to go. Anxiety doesn’t always make sense, as it doesn’t need to be triggered by anything in particular. Just because he doesn’t want to go to school, that doesn’t mean there is a problem at school, but be guided by your son and the teachers on this. Anxiety can be so confusing like that. It’s really important that you get support to help both you and your son with this. If this has been going on for five months, it might take a little while to shift it, but absolutely it can be managed. It’s important that your son is involved in the strategy for getting him back to school, and a counsellor will be able to guide you through this. It may be that he has to start with an hour or so a day, and work up. Sometimes though this can be more difficult, especially if the anxiety typically eases when he is there. These are things that will need to be taken into account before working on a plan. In the meantime, it’s important that if your son is at home on a school day, that he is either doing schoolwork or contributing in some way at home. This isn’t about punishment – with anxiety, it’s not that he ‘won’t’ it’s that he feels like he ‘can’t’. He doesn’t want to feel the way he’s feeling either. Having said that though, doesn’t mean the option is to stay home and relax for the day. If he isn’t keeping on top of schoolwork while he is at home, or contributing in some way, he will only feel worse about things, which will make it harder for him to feel strong, capable and important.

Your son’s school should be able to suggest a counsellor or a therapist who will be able to work with you and your so to come up with a strategy to get him back to school. I understand how exhausting this must be for you. Hang in there. With the right help and support, your son will be okay.

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Lauren

We’re going through a very similar situation with my 13-yo son and school refusal. We’ve done counseling and meds, with only very minor success. We’re in a “partial hospitalization program” at Children’s Hospital. I would suggest looking for this type of intensive outpatient counseling….because 1 or 2 tines a week at outpatient counseling may not be enough support. Ask school to evaluate for emotional disability (request an IEP); this may help create a more flexible school environment that relieves some pressure allowing your child to feel capable of attending school again.

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Joy

I’ve been living a similar situation since September with my 14 yo son. It reached crisis and landed us in the hospital ER for several days, which resulted in some changes but was simply terrible – I hope it doesn’t get that bad for you. That said, you need help! Real help! I know I did. First, get him fully evaluated. Pediatricians are not typically trained in mental health disorders. Find a local psychiatrist and mental health center that can do a full evaluation. Good luck getting him out the door – but this IS the time to employ every kind of bribery and enticement. My son was diagnosed with severe anxiety and OCD with intrusive thoughts that stop him in his tracks (and appear invisible to me). This may also be connected to dyslexia that undermines his sense of worth and requires tremendous focus from him at school. These are very treatable, and he found some relief knowing what was going on with his brain. Second, let go of your expectations for any given day. He may need to find success in simply getting out of bed for a while. Eating. Taking a shower. He will continue to learn and get back into school, but that’s not the most important right now. Third, find out what kind of resources you can get from his school. I had to press, but my son now has up to 10 hours of tutoring to catch him up and move him forward in school. The tutors can come to our house or the library. We have super low expectations for the amount of work he will do; he just has to do something! Some days are good, others not so much. Finally, find a parent support group or counselor for yourself/partner. It’s all I can do to do any self care myself, but that’s the one thing I prioritize – remembering I’m not alone.

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Danielle

I went through this same situation with my daughter who is now 14. I also had the same feelings of anxiety when I was a kid. About 2 years ago we decided to put her on medicine for the anxiety. She is a whole different person! I also take medication for anxiety. I know it’s a hard thing to think about medication for children but when you see that the torture is over it is well worth it!! The doctors also pointed out that hormones can play a big role in anxiety and of course middle school is the prime age for all these changes!

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A dobbing

My son sufferd the samethe year before last year setptember it started two days a week his tummy would hurt felt sick ect till full weeks were being missed he broke and finally spoke to me after maths of stress and worry not knowing or even if I could help him, but thankfully after meetings and support we managed to get a manage move despite his low attendance which has been absolutely perfect he’s at 100% now since his move last April and thriving in school we still have huge hurdles to face daily but our biggest hurdle we faced and solved.
good luck and stay strong despite the frustration you can and will get through it time with patience and support.

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Susanne

Hi Jen,
My 16 year old was like this last year. Looking back he had been suffering for many months previously and was hiding how terrible he was feeling. It came to a head when he started having anxiety attacks even driving into school. We got him to a psychologist immediately as we felt we couldn’t wait for a referral to CAMHS and it was exam time. Psychologists can really help them understand how to deal with these feelings and give the copying strategies. I strongly advise getting him outside help (as Kerrie said get an understanding Doctor on your side). The school should also be able to offer you support and guidance. Avoidance is a classic indication of anxiety and there is no way he will be able to overcome this without the help he (and you) needs. My son is now on anti-depressants and has come out of the school system to home school for this year to get himself well again. What you think is the end of the world at the moment is just a little blip, so stay positive because things will get better (and yes it is exhausting!).

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Taren

Im just in tears my baby is only 9 and she does or says over half of this stuff I DONT KNOW HOW TO HELP HER

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Karen Young

I really understand the feelings of helplessness when your littles are struggling with something. Here is an article that can help with what to say if she is feeling anxious https://www.heysigmund.com/building-emotional-intelligence-what-to-say-to-children-with-anxiety/ and also some ideas about how to respond in the moment https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-children-metaphor-put-shoes-right-beside/. Here is another one that will help you to talk to her and explain what’s happening. This can take the fear out of the anxiety and help kids to feel more powerful against it https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/. I hope these help.

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Sarah

Hi,
In response to Jen, do get help! We have just been through this for the past two years with our now 12 year old and it’s really important to get counselling or psychologist help before it gets worse. Our boy started with school refusal, but then got much worse, to the point he wouldn’t get out of bed and he was severely depressed. The good news is that it does get better. I don’t know where you live, but in New Zealand we attended a programme called ‘Cool Kids’ which was very helpful – I believe there is one in Australia too. We also had one-on-one psychologist counselling – for both him and the family, plus help from Northern Health Schools here in Auckland who helped us home school him initially, then helped transition him back to school. He’s now back at school most days, but it’s been an incredibly traumatic time for all of us, so I urge you to get help now!

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Leah

While young brains{Age 0-7 especially}, are developing, is crucial for a stable safe loving caring environment.
My childhood was stable in that we lived in the same house from my age 5-19, we had many fun times, yet it was rocky with my parents unstable emotions, alcoholism, wild parties!
We kids never knew what to expect – from good, teaching, fun, angry, scary, distance, closeness, to hostile, critical, sober, drunkedness….it was a rocky road.
The result was myself and siblings treated for ‘anxiety/depression’ beginning in our 30’s – to now.
The good news, is, that we turned out fine, other than the nervous system being ‘hypervigilant’ in cycles. We learned what NOT to do/be, for our own children. Some of us got counseling or went to Alanon, and Spiritual Relationship with God/Christ. Without the Spiritual Aspect of healing, i imagine that the peacefulness would not be a part of our current health and personality. Maybe that’s partially The Way The Holy Spirit gets our attention. Some get it. Others reject The Spirit, many use various ways of coping, or not coping whatsoever. Being a human Spirit in a Physical body is not easy for those of us who’ve endured a rough start. Making a loving, safe and cozy home for children is the way to build a strong foundation. The only thing which my parents did not screw up on, is they funnily enough had a strong faith. That they had other issues which helped to create their instability, was inevitably used for the good. God uses it all. We have choices, and all choices lead to consequences. As in constructing a building, the more stable the foundation, the more one may be able to endure when the storms come later on in life – without cracking or breaking, or turning to some sort of unhealthy dependency. This is crucial for parents to instill what young children ALREADY KNOW intuitively – that we all have a heavenly Father we can trust, lean on, and ask from, who always hears us, forgives us no matter what. Due to this, i have grown and healed by understanding, loving, and forgiving my parents, and myself.

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Karen Young

A lot of behaviours that suggest anxiety in two year olds are age appropriate and something they’ll grow out of. They’re still very new to the world, and it can be scary and unfamiliar. It doesn’t necessarily mean anxiety will be a problem moving forward. Just keep doing what you can to help your littles feel safe and secure. They may grow out of it, but if they don’t, know that it can be managed so it doesn’t get in their way.

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Kate

My 3 year old also says all of these things on a regular basis.
She says her tummy hurts or she feels so sick because she doesn’t want to eat broccoli
She says her legs hurt because she likes the animal plasters in the first aid cupboard.
She says she doesn’t want to go to nursery when we leave the house and she says she wants to stay at nursery when we pick her up.
She says she can’t sleep when she wants to hang out with mummy and daddy because she thinks she is missing something.
She says ‘but what if ‘ before bed time because she wants to keep me in the room and not go to bed.
Surly this completely normal behaviour of a curious 3 yr old who is exploring her and my boundaries? Or is this the start?

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Karen Young

This absolutely could be normal behaviour and most probably is. As the article explains, it’s important to look at context. You’ve identified other reasons for your daughter saying these things, and all of those reasons make sense. The clues are whether these are said consistently before something that could cause anxiety (such as school, bedtime, separation, anything unfamiliar etc), whether they happen with other symptoms of anxiety, and the intensity of the response (it would be likely that tight muscles that come from anxiety would be more intense and intrusive than the type that come with the hope of animal plasters, for example. Similarly, sick tummies that seem to coincide with broccoli landing on the table are less likely to indicate anxiety than sick tummies that seem to happen fairly consistently on the way to school). At 3, one of your daughter’s very important jobs is to experiment with boundaries and ways to get her needs met and it’s great that she’s exploring this the way she is.

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Amanda

From #5 on, this sounds exactly like my 4yo. Is this normal for her age as well? Or do I have to worry about something more? I’ve alreeady been noticing other signs and since anxiety runs through my family (myself, both parents, my grandmother, etc have/had it), I am so so worried she has it now too.

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Karen Young

At 4 years old, your daughter is still trying to understand the world and where she fits in to it. Even if she does become anxious, it will be manageable. It’s understandable that if you have experienced anxiety yourself, and if you have seen it in family members, that you will worry about it happening to her. What you need to know is that anxiety is very manageable. We know so much more about it now than we did when you were young, so your daughter’s experience of anxiety (if she experiences it) will be different to your experience with anxiety. It sounds as though she has great support around her.

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Jo Jo

Understand, my Daughter suffers with Anxiety, the one attack left us calling 999.! I panicked as I wasn’t sure what was happening to her and her body..

Waiting for the Doctor to refer her to cahms, but haven’t heard anything positive regarding them..

I do as a mother who’s struggled with Anxiety as a young Adult.. That Mental Health services for the young should be more helpful and help our children, to become healthy in mind and soul going into Adults..

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Mary

I wish I had read this when my son was 3 or 4. It would have explained what looked like behavior problems at the time as what we now know is anxiety. There is a lot of guild that we didn’t figure this out until he was 13! All is better now as we are all learning how to identify and deal with his feelings of anxiety.

Thank you for this article!

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Karen Young

It’s great that you were able to figure out what was happening for your son. Let go of your guilt. Anxiety can be difficult to identify because it can look like other things, and we know so much more than we did 10 years ago. So pleased he’s doing better.

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Etin

Wow, this sounds exactly like my 10 year old son. It breaks my heart he has these feelings. I have tried so hard to help him understand and we have attempted to go to counseling on 3 different occasions. However, the thought of even going makes him tear up and he won’t move. How do I get him help? He avoids all situations he can’t control. Help me!

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Karen Young

You have a lot of power to make a difference. First, help him to feel stronger by explaining to him why he feels that way he does. This article will help with the words https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/. Next, involve him in the strategy to strengthen himself against anxiety. Will he do mindfulness? Exercise? Breathing? If there is something in particular he is avoiding, the stepladder strategy might work. It’s explained here https://www.heysigmund.com/phobias-and-fears-in-children/. Then, talk to him about what he thinks counselling will mean for him. If he’s reluctant to go, explore with him what might be driving this. Ask him to work with you on a plan for a counsellor. It might be that you let him know he only has to go once, and if he hates it, he doesn’t have to go back – or something like that. The more he can be involved in the plan, the more likely he will be to own it.

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Deb

Try kids help line online. Someone they can ‘talk’ to from the safety/comfort of home. My 10yr old found it good, she was just not ready to accept what they told her. (That her and her friends were drifting apart). Once we were able to talk to her about it as well, she was able to talk to her friends about their problems. They sorted it out. New school this year, new problems, will show her this article later – she goes through feeling sad for no apparent reason..

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Ava

Re: #15. What do you recommend if this might be the case? The girl I have in mind doesn’t SEEM anxious, but she says those words “nobody wants to play with me” and then is very sad. She’s very precocious (there’s a word nobody uses anymore!), artistic, and USED to play all the time with a classmate she knew. Now that other classmate plays more with another girl, but honestly, this girl is imaginative, friendly…she often chooses NOT to play with others because she gets so engrossed in her own creations.

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Karen Young

It’s difficult to know if this is being driven by anxiety, her desire to play on her own, or an issue of her social skills needing a little guidance. Does she have any other signs of anxiety? If so, and it’s anxiety driving it, she may need a little help to initiate friendships. One way to do this is to sit her in the class in a particular group, or have the class work in smaller groups and placing her with those friends. If there are no other signs of anxiety, it may be more a problem of supporting her in relation to helping her develop her social skills a little more. Here is an article that will give some strategies https://www.heysigmund.com/social-emotional-intelligence/. Finally, if she chooses not to play with other kids and seems happy with that decision, that’s completely okay. Let that happen as it isn’t something that needs fixing.

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Jo

Lots of great tips and practical ideas for us parents of wee anxious kidlets and very timely as they start ‘winding up’ for the start of the school year. Thank you for a great, informative article 😀

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Rose

I wish my family had had this information when I was a child. I was a bundle of anxiety and displayed most of the above symptoms. Nobody understood what was wrong with me. I was hauled to the doctor at regular intervals and he just said that there was nothing wrong with me and that I was ‘putting it on ‘ to get out of going to school. It was hell- my parents were angry with me and I became extremely thin because of the battleground that was mealtimes and feeling sick all the time.

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sue

I have two kids who have had complete mental breakdowns due to school based anxiety. I agree to keep trying but there must come a point where enough is enough. An adult in that state wouldnt be expected to go to work and yet we push kids beyond their limits as we are told we must.

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Yvette Silguero

Parents PLZ LISTEN TO UR CHILDREN my daughter is 21 now and I went through all of what you are going through, my daughter has true to commit suicide more then 3 times. She is a cutter, she cuts herself to relieve her pain. One Dr told me once when I went to pick her up from hospital that they get a lot of kids like her and that its ok to have them do him school, they can get the education at any time their MENTAL HEALTH IS NUMBER 1. My daughter gets anxiety when we drop off my youngest child at school, he’s 13. My daughter tells me, ” it’s hard, us kids go through a hard time too. Kids are mean, it’s tough out there LISTEN TO UR BABIES PLZ. Maybe the feel alone, like outcast, maybe being bullied, made fun off, ANYTHING, maybe tbey feel tbey dont fit in and that’s ok, we know that as adults, however these are children, most do not understand that. Their peers are what matter to them right now. Yes this is a tough situation. Be your child’s advocate, protect them, be there for tbem, LISTEN, PAY REALLY CLOSE ATTENTION TO YOUR CHILDRENS WORDS. WE R THEIR PROTECTORS.

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Steph

Rose – I had exactly the same experience and I think only now (nearly 40) am really getting a grip on anxiety. It’s no help to look back, but I do know that if I had had the kind of help set out in these posts when I was 11, it would have saved me a lot of heartache later on. So to all the parents on here – you’re doing exactly the right things. Keep it up. My son is 2.5 and more than anything, I want him to be able to understand and accept his emotions.

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CStrong73

Any advice on how to convince an anxious pre-teen to see a counselor? My daughter has said at least half of these things word-for-word, and exhibited a lot of the behaviors described. I’ve identified a psychologist who comes highly recommended specifically for pre-teen and teen girls experiencing stress and anxiety. But I can’t figure out how to get my daughter to agree to go.
She thinks going to a counsellor means there’s “something wrong with her”. And of course, I don’t want to force it. Any suggestions?

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Karen Young

First, I would speak about the issues you see for her. A problem is only a problem if it’s causing problems. If the things your daughter is doing isn’t causing her problems it may be difficult to convince her, but if you can identify clearly the ways counselling might help her, this might make it more an option for her. Explain that it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with her, but there are things we all would like to do better sometimes. Try asking her to go to three sessions, and then agreeing to give her an out if she still isn’t getting anything out of it.

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Kellie

Our 11yr old son has bad anxiety about going anywhere without us (he is ok at school), especially play dates and sleep overs. It was all triggered from an overseas holiday with his grandparents – they left him with a relatives “maid” while they went out for a few hours and he was so so scared. His mates are noticing and he is really embarrassed about it. They are starting to exclude him from things too so I am afraid he will end up with no friends or being picked on. He has a school camp in a few weeks and is already freaking out and begging me not to send him. My husband is giving him the hard approach – you are going and that’s it! I feel so bad for him and just feel he shouldn’t be forced. He can’t even do 1 night sleeping at his best friends place or his favourite Aunty and Cousins. He has seen a school concellor for about 4 months but I have not seen any improvement. How can I help him? Should he see a psychiatrist? Just don’t know the next step.

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Grace

I’m raising grandchildren and two of them have been diagnosed with anxiety and are currently taking medication which seems to help some. At times though their behaviors make me feel they simply want to avoid things, or they are just misbehaving. Thank you for writing this as I can now pay close attention to figure out if it’s their anxiety. I also wonder how can it be differentiated if it’s anxiety or SPD.

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Christine

Thank you so much for this article! These are all the symptoms- behaviors my daughter (3 years old) is exhibiting every morning she has to go to pre-school. It is a private preschool, which is supposed to be very good in their methods and adaptation. She started going in September but has been miserable every single day since. Every moring she cannot eat anything, complains of tummy pain, need to vomit, asks to go pee but doesn’t in the end etc. and has a lot of tantrums throughout the rest of the day. So it’s been 5 months of this behaviour and i feel she is suffering… i really do not know what to say to her and what to do. I spoke with the teachers but every time they seem to want to avoid the subject…I would appreciate any advice from your part regarding the above. thank you in advance

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Karen Young

The behaviour you’re describing isn’t unusual. She is very young and she’s getting used to being without you, and also the routine of pre-school and being with a lot of other people during the day. Some kids take a while to settle into this, and that’s okay. There are some clues in this article https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-children-metaphor-put-shoes-right-beside/, and this article https://www.heysigmund.com/kids-with-anxiety-need-to-know/ and also here https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-very-young-kids-11-ways-to-make-a-difference/. As she gets older, you will be able to help her more and more with these strategies, and set her up with important skills that will hold her and support her as she moves forward.

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Sarah

I have a now teenage child who in ur 2 was being sent home “sick” a couple of times a week after blood tests and doctors visits I realised it was Anxiety he was not sure of the reason and couldn’t place the feeling except he felt sick. Even now as a teen in senior school when he becomes overwhelmed especially around exam time we talk it through and sometimes it’s necissary to have a day at home or half day (if there is nothing important on) just to reset and take a minute.

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Amy

We are going through this with my 5-yr-old. This reads like a word-for-word description of our life right now! She is halfway through her kindergarten year. We had a relatively enthusiastic and happy start to school but the anxiety has kicked into high gear since returning Christmas break. Nausea, belly pain, low appetite, leg and arm pain, separation anxiety, avoidance, what-ifs, tantrums. Looking back, we have been dealing with all of these things with her since she was a toddler… as an infant even. I have often said she didn’t wait for Terrible Twos – her tantrums started at six months of age. She would just scream and bawl and cry – no physical problems we could find – but could not be calmed. We would just have to ride it out until it passed. I only started to suspect anxiety and connect the dots over the last six months or so. There’s also a history of anxiety on both sides of our family. Is it too soon to seek help from a counsellor?

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Erika

So much good info here! Found myself reading through article after article. We have struggled with my 10 year old thinking her tantrums are defiance especially when she doesn’t get her way, but I am now convinced we are dealing with some anxiety. Having struggled with anxiety myself it breaks my heart that she has to deal with this. Love the idea of naming it. Then when she feels symptoms coming it may help her to express herself rather than melt down. Need to get a copy of your book! Looking forward to reading more articles and finding a way to help my sweet girl.

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Whitney

I have anxiety and take medication for it. My daughter shows so many of these signs and is just turning 3. It concerns me.

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Kristen

I take meds for anxiety and I’m always wondering if I should put my daughter on meds also. She’s 8. She has shown anxiety since the age of 5. Recently I found out that it runs in the family. Her big issues are low self esteem and whenever anything new comes up. This past season I had her play soccer bc she wanted to and I made her stick through it. At every game I would fight with her to go and get in uniform. Luckly she had good couches who worked with her situation. But I got so mad at her each time and felt bad. It gets so aggravating. I’m not sure if I should sign her up this year. I want her to try new things that’s she shows interest in and I don’t want her to miss out. I would appreciate any advice.

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Karen Young

Medication for children should always be a last resort. Your daughter is still very young, and it doesn’t sound as though the problems you are describing, though difficult to deal with, doing damage to her. Many children struggle with new things, or to stick at extracurricular activities. Your daughter is learning how to deal with the world and the people in it. Give her the space to do this. If you are concerned, speak with a counsellor or therapist. Your daughter may benefit from the opportunity to learn certain skills. She is young and she is learning and all children need the space and time to do this.

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Hey Warrior - A book about anxiety in children.