The symptoms of anxiety are not always obvious, especially in children. This could mean that many children with anxiety – for instance, the 25% of 13-to-18-year-olds who suffer from anxiety every year – can go untreated, and have more anxiety issues in adulthood.
In many ways, anxiety has similar effects in adults and children alike: Anyone with anxiety can feel nervous, moody, shy, or tired – or suffer from anxiety-related disorders, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, unlike adults, children may not know how to communicate their anxiety properly, as shown in the video below:
So without further ado, here are some ways children might “tell” their parents about the anxiety they are experiencing, as told by concerned parents and people with childhood experiences of anxiety on The Mighty. If your children have used 2-3 or more these phrases repeatedly, it may be a good idea to start talking to them about anxiety – and how to treat it!
11 Phrases Kids Might Use to Tell You “I’m Anxious”
1. “What’s wrong with me?”
If your child begins to express self-doubt a little too often, it may be best to keep your eyes peeled for other signs of anxiety.
“I didn’t realize I had anxiety and my parents didn’t either. They just thought I was being dramatic when I would burst into tears crying, ‘What is wrong with me?’” noted one user from The Mighty.(Kylie L.)
2. “I’m tired.”
Perhaps your child is constantly worn out because of anxiety-related ruminations.
“When I was a kid, I experienced sleep disturbances for a very long time,” another user told The Mighty. “The whole process of going to school, getting through the day, trying not to be bullied and coming home was always mentally rehearsed the night before.” (Julie A.)
3. “I have a headache.” or “Don’t make me.”
While few children love going to school, your child’s refusal to go to school could still be indicative of something deeper than disliking a few classes.
“I used the excuse of feeling ill plenty of times to avoid going to school,” remarked one participant on The Mighty‘s survey. “I didn’t realize I had anxiety at the time, but everything makes sense when I look back on it now. I wasn’t just being ‘lazy’ back then.” (Ada T.)
4. “I’m sorry.”
Knowing when to apologize is a good thing. Apologizing too often is not.
“I constantly apologized for things that weren’t really an issue, or I just wouldn’t interact,” said another participant on her intrusive doubts. “I still have issues with constantly saying I’m sorry for non-issues and being very quiet in hard situations.” (Teresa R.)
5. “Can’t we stay home?”
Does your child prefer to stay in quiet, familiar environments over new experiences – even fun and exciting ones?
“I hated going out places because the noise bothered me. Now as an adult, I try to balance things, but it’s still a challenge,” admitted one participant. (Elyse B.)
6. “You do it.” or “I don’t want to!”
If your child actively avoids even the most minimal social interactions, he/she could be suffering from severe social anxiety.
One commenter on The Mighty recalled: “I had such a hard time placing an order for food that I would tell whoever I was with what I wanted and have them place the order.” (— Becky B.)
7. “Is it time to leave yet?” or “I want to go home.”
While parties can be uncomfortable for anyone when they are drawn out for too long, they can be particularly troubling for children with anxiety.
“I always said this because crowds of even more than two people would trigger my anxiety,” confessed another commenter. “I couldn’t wait ’till said events or functions were done.” (Shannon C.)
8. “Don’t leave me.”
If your child never wants to leave you, even for a short while, he/she may be exhibiting separation anxiety.
“I was very anxious about being abandoned as a child,” said yet another commenter. “I believed people would leave me if I wasn’t good enough, and it would be my fault.” (Jennifer P.)
9. “Can you turn on the hallway light for me at night?”
It’s one thing to be afraid of the dark – and another, entirely, to be overwhelmed with nightmarish thoughts about it.
“I lived in fear for a few years that someone was going to come into my room and kidnap me,” explained one user. “The light didn’t help. I would lie in bed for two hours just waiting. I still don’t sleep well.” (Laura R.)
10. “My body is uncomfortable.”
It’s possible that your child is conflating physical and mental health.
“I used to say, ‘My body is uncomfortable, my body is uncomfortable!’ I didn’t know what it was at the time. Years later, I finally figured it out!” exclaimed another user. (Barb S.)
11. “I don’t feel well.”
Sometimes, a complaint about body aches could be just that.
“Or more specifically, ‘My stomach hurts.’ Even now, my gut and my feelings are still greatly connected,” added one commenter. (Carrie M.)
Signs of Anxiety in Children and Adults
In both adults and children, anxiety refers to the light-to-severe mental and physical symptoms that leave a person feeling uneasy and nervous.
Anyone can develop anxiety and anxiety-related disorders, like panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Complex in nature, anxiety may be caused both by mental factors, like negative thinking patterns, as well as physical factors, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and social factors, like traumatic life events.
For both adults and children, symptoms of anxiety can include:
- Difficulty concentrating or “blanking out”
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty controlling the worry
- Feeling nauseous, panicked, or sick
- Sleep problems (e.g. restlessness, unsatisfying sleep)
- Feeling highly anxious about being with other people
- Difficulty talking to other people
- Being self-conscious or fearful around other people
- Avoiding social situations and events
- Blushing, sweating, or trembling around other people
- Feeling nauseous or sick to your stomach when other people are around
However, when it comes to children, you should be looking out for more physical signs of anxiety, as kids may not know how to express their mental difficulties verbally.
So watch out for these physical signs of anxiety in children, which can sometimes be misunderstood as indicators of other physical illnesses or learning issues:
- Poor balance (from dizziness)
- Rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
- Sweaty or shaky hands or feet
- Complaints about headaches, stomachaches, and tiredness
- Silence and refusal to speak
- Sudden changes in eating habits
- Mood swings
- Wanting to stay home or with parents all the time
- Wanting to avoid social activities or school
- Panic attacks and fainting
- Sleep disturbances (e.g. nightmares, insomnia)
- Irritability and restlessness
- Inability to concentrate
- Sudden changes in grades
- Low self-esteem (e.g. saying negative things about themselves)
Treating Anxiety in Children
If your child is experiencing anxiety that is interfering with daily life and functioning, you should consult a medical professional to investigate the potential causes and explore possible treatment options.
Treatment options for anxiety, for both adults and children, could include:
- Talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). For adults, this could mean tackling negative thought patterns with talk-based interventions. For children, this could mean role-playing situations that make them anxious and practicing how to act in stressful situations.
- Group therapy. Discussing anxiety and seeking social support in a self-help group can help alleviate anxiety.
- Learning stress-management techniques. Adults and children alike can learn mindfulness techniques and meditative exercises that can help calm them. Light exercises, like 30 minutes of walking or playing actively with friends, may also help alleviate anxiety.
- Seeking social support. Having a strong social network, like supportive parents and non-judgmental friends, can help to keep calm and seek help when needed.
- Eating anti-anxiety foods. Moderating foods that cause anxious jitters, like caffeine or large amounts of added sugar, and eating more anti-anxiety spices and superfoods may help alleviate anxiety. You should, however, consult with your doctor first to see if any of these foods will interfere with any medication you or your child takes on a regular basis.
- Taking medication, if needed. If anxiety is caused by biological and neurological problems, like brain chemistry, or if other interventions are not helpful, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs like SSRIs and benzodiazepines may help adults. However, antidepressants should be taken with caution when it comes to children and teens, as it could have risky side effects, like suicidal ideation.
So if you notice that your child is undergoing sudden changes in mood, grades, energy levels, and attitudes about going to school or going to social events, consider talking to them about anxiety. Even light complaints, when repeated enough, could turn out to be a coded expression of anxiety.