What Anxiety Looks Like in Children
When children are in their optimal state - calm alertness - we say that they are within their "window of tolerance." Children are feeling good and able to access their higher order thinking processes to engage with their environment, manage themselves, and do what is expected of them. When children feel overwhelmed, their stress system (or internal alarm system) gets triggered beyond their conscious awareness. The sympathetic nervous system gets activated and sends them into a fight or flight response - they strive to overpower or run away from the stressor. If this state of hyperarousal is ineffective, the parasympathetic nervous system gets activated and sends them into a freeze or collapse response - their brains and bodies feign death to try and survive the stressor. Remember that this is not within a child's control and misbehavior in these states of being are not willful defiance
Some children appear hyperaroused - like a porcupine with its quills out - they externalize their distress and can explode. This parallels the body's fight or flight response, which may appear as 'freaking out' behaviour. These behaviours are very noticeable in children. Your child may become reactive, quick to anger, aggressive, oppositional, anxious, agitated, desperate to try and escape, or disruptive. Some anxious children resort to making jokes or being mean to others. These behaviours can be misconstrued as purposeful and attention-grabbing.
Some children appear hypoaroused - like a turtle tucking into its shell - they internalize their distress and can implode. This parallels the body's freeze response. It is much less noticeable on the outside but just as challenging for a child on the inside. These children are paralyzed by fear. Your child may appear apprehensive, sad, lethargic, confused, withdrawn, unmotivated, helpless, clingy, spacey, numb, foggy, or zoned out. For some anxious children, this manifests as procrastination or a failure to complete a task.
When children become trapped in a desperate need to seek safety (a survival instinct), you will notice that any time anxiety arises, there becomes a sudden reactive shift in their expression, voice, posture, words, and behaviour. Know that this is not your child misbehaving. This is anxiety holding your child hostage - causing them to close themselves off to the world - and sabotaging their goals. Anxious children lack the skills to manage their emotions and they would do better if they could. What anxious children need is your understanding, compassion, and support to help increase their window of tolerance. With your help and lots of practice, your child can gain the courage they need to step into discomfort on purpose, learn how to tolerate distress, and move toward their goals.
It's important to recognize that anxious behaviour can look like inattention, hyperactivity, restlessness, acting out, perfectionism, and/or disengagement. Notice that anxiety can manifest in ways that overlap with the presentation of ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), but these are not the same thing. If your child struggles with significant anxiety, consider speaking with a qualified professional to identify effective strategies to support them and to rule out any other possible explanations for their ongoing challenges.
- Written by Cynthia Yoo, Registered Psychologist -
Anxiety Canada is a website offering free information, articles, and resources on worry, panic, perfectionism, social anxiety, and phobias
My Anxiety Plan is a free self-guided study plan to help children, youth, and parents manage anxiety
MindShift CBT is a free evidence-based app to help manage anxiety
Calm - resource with meditations, stories, music, talks, and more
Headspace - app with guided and unguided meditations as well as animations for younger kids
Books on helping parents support their child with anxiety:
Anxious Kids Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children - by Lynn Lyons & Reid Wilson
Parent-Led CBT for Child Anxiety: Helping Parents Help their Kids - by Cathy Creswell, Monika Parkinson, Kerstin Thirlwall, & Lucy Willetts
Hey Warrior: A Book For Kids About Anxiety - by Karen Young