• Child Development

What Does Anxiety Look Like In Kids

Understanding anxiety and how to help your child can be very confusing and overwhelming. Socially it can be something that is misunderstood and can lead to a range of unsettling emotions for the whole family involved. You may feel like you are failing as a parent and as if you are constantly being judged. I want you to know, you are not alone and these experiences are very common and there is help at hand.

To better understand your anxious child, it is first important to understand anxiety and its role in our survival. Anxiety is an emotion purely driven by a survival mode, our flight or fight response, and can show up as different types of anxiety. These could include, social anxiety, panic disorder, separation anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder to name a few.

Anxiety acts like an internal risk assessment of what is going on in the environment and is it a threat to me. Whilst it is supposed to be a helpful response, in some cases anxiety can start to get in the way of your child’s everyday experiences and stop them from doing the things that they love.

So what does anxiety look like in children? Some of the common symptoms your child may experience include skin picking, repetitive body movements, hair pulling, nail biting, sucking on things, asking a lot of questions, wanting to know details of a lot of things, lots of worry, talking about what if’s, negative attitude, tearfulness, difficulty sleeping, refusal to participate, complaining of headaches, stomach aches, irritability and anger, excessive energy, and hypersensitivity.

It is very common for anxiety related behaviours to be misunderstood as oppositional, hyperactive, argumentative and as a child psychologist I receive a lot of referrals for “behavioural issues” that actually turn out to be anxiety issues. Why is this the case? Well think about it – if you are terrified (because that is the emotional experience), you are probably going to do everything that you can to either “run” or “fight” what you consider to be a threat. Anxiety causes us to want to take CONTROL of a situation. So if you are a child, with limited emotional and expressive resources, you are going to draw from what you have to try to make sure you feel safe.

As allied health professionals with training and a special interest in working with children, it is our aim to teach children life-long skills to manage their feelings and help them work through what is getting in the way of them living their “best life”. The first thing we will do, and work with parents in doing, is to look at the child’s behaviour and understand what the child is trying to communicate. All behaviour has a function, and understanding the function of your child’s behaviour will create an opportunity for you to support them through a difficult moment, and understand what is driving the behaviour. You then have the opportunity to present solutions and solve what they see to be a “problem”. Although it may appear to look like they are being naughty (a word I despise), there is usually an underlying reason to why they are acting the way they are and it is the only way they know how to communicate this.

A technique that is used commonly to work with children in a difficult moment is emotion coaching. This technique is about identifying the signs of distress (early if possible), naming the feeling, telling the story (ore naming the problem), reassuring and validating the emotion by letting them know you understand and its normal, and reassuring the child that they will be okay. Supporting emotional language development is another technique, which helps children learn to express their feelings and feel comfortable and safe to do so.

It’s important to get to the point where your child can express and talk about their story because then you can address it. It is also important to help them get to a point where they feel calm, through breathing exercises, tightening and loosening their bodies and muscles, and centering and grounding.

I explain how to do this in more detail in the live video here:


There are many other important points I talk about and others that were not addressed in this blog so If you would like to learn more and how we work with kids and families here at CDSA, watch the live video and be sure to follow us on Facebook.

Yours in parenting,


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