Your 4-year-old started preschool this year and her teacher tells you she spends most of her time with teachers, is having a hard time concentrating, and complains of frequent stomach aches. You also notice that she resists play dates more than usual. Until now, you thought nothing of it since she has always been a shy, quiet child. However, her teachers say it is anxiety and give you a list of therapists to call. Although you feel that this may just be a phase or a part of her personality, how do you know?
Anxiety, by nature, gets worse over time because children learn that avoidance and seeking reassurance are effective in gaining relief from their symptoms. However, the relief is only temporary. In fact, avoidance and reassurance only reinforces the anxiety, making it stronger and more problematic.
The first step is to recognize signs of anxiety in your child and if it is “healthy” or “unhealthy,” which is not always obvious. Anxiety is normal and needed for survival, aka healthy anxiety. If we were living in the cave man days and we walked outside our cave to find a sabertooth tiger, we would want our anxiety responses to kick in so our body is prepared to fight or run away (fight or flight). However, unhealthy anxiety triggers responses when it is not warranted or useful. Below are some common behaviors displayed in children with anxiety to be on the lookout for:
Frequent stomachaches or asking to go to the nurse during school
Avoidance of situations, places, objects, etc.
Asking questions that have already answered or they know the answer to
Lack of focus, concentration, or attention
Increased time to complete homework
Increased amount and severity of tantrums
Nausea and diarrhea
Increased behavioral problems at home or school
Difficulty falling or staying asleep/nightmares
Frequent overreaction to situation, place, object, etc
Rigidity in routines
Excessive worry about the future
Now that you know the more common signs of anxiety, pay attention to the intensity of reaction or behavior in relation to the situation, place, or object. It is normal for a child to have a tantrum here and there; however, if it is reoccurring more often, she may be experiencing anxiety.
If you are still unsure if your child’s anxiety is a phase or something more, ask yourself if it is interfering with your child’s life and/or your family’s lives as a whole. If the answer is no, then just pay close attention to any changes or increase in severity. If the answer is yes, find a therapist that uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and exposure and response prevention (ERP), the most effect forms of treatment for anxiety disorders. The good news is, CBT will give your child skills and tools they can use throughout their entire life!