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Mental Health > Anxiety disorders
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How to recognize a child's anxiety symptoms

A child's anxiety symptoms may not be all that different from those experienced by an adult with an anxiety disorder. Children can experience the pounding heartbeat and sweaty palms of a panic attack and kids can struggle just as mightily against persistent fear and worry as any grownup.

Unfortunately, a child's anxiety disorder can easily go unrecognized or unnoticed. This is especially true when a child lacks the vocabulary to voice their anxiety. As we get older, we tend to get better at communicating how we're feeling. We learn more words to describe the complexities of our emotional lives: "A panic attack makes you feel unreal and detached from your body" or "Anxiety creates irrational fears." It's hard enough to explain feelings, but imagine trying to convey these emotions when you don't yet know words like these.

Rather than telling you how they feel or think, a child may reveal their anxiety in other ways.

Pay attention to your child's physical symptoms. A child experiencing unresolved stress or anxiety may complain of physical symptoms when there is no other underlying illness. Some of the common physical symptoms include stomach aches, headaches, changes in eating habits or appetite, bedwetting, disturbed sleep, and nightmares. A child experiencing a panic attack may tremble, shake, have a rapid pulse, or be dizzy or short of breath.

Pay attention to your child's behaviour. Be aware of changes to your child's normal behaviour in different contexts (e.g., at home, with friends, at school, etc.). Without the right words to convey their worries, a child may act out their anxieties - clinging to parents, being stubborn, whining and crying, or acting out aggressively or with anger.

A child may seem to regress and act in ways that you thought they had long outgrown. Children may also exhibit excessively perfectionistic tendencies or behaviors, they may attempt to exercise an inordinate amount of control over specific tasks/activities (e.g., eating), or they may purposefully hurt themselves physically as a way to regulate negative emotions that may be difficult for them to verbalize and tolerate. These types of behaviour should be closely monitored to keep them from escalating to where they're harmful to the child's physical and mental health.

Help your child put a face on their emotions. Help your child learn to put words to the emotions they feel. One way you can do this is to use a feelings chart. This is usually a poster or sheet that displays pictures of different facial expressions representing a range of human emotions - happiness, sadness, fear, frustration, confusion. These charts can help to boost a child's "emotional vocabulary" by linking the body's expressions and gestures to the emotions that humans feel.

When kids do communicate their emotions, parents and teachers should be open and receptive to discussing these issues, rather than being dismissive. The message that should be given to children is that talking about negative emotions is acceptable and that it's ok to have these negative emotions from time to time. Most importantly, parents and teachers should model appropriate ways of coping with these emotions constructively rather than just teaching children to suppress or internalize their negative emotions.

It is very important to recognize a child's anxiety symptoms and seek treatment. Untreated childhood anxieties can persist into adulthood, impede social development and educational success, trigger unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse, or dovetail into other anxiety disorders or mental health issues, including depression and eating disorders.


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