One of my children was recently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and I didn’t see it coming.
I knew my child struggled in certain situations, but I didn’t think she had anxiety.
That day we got home from the doctor’s office after hearing the diagnosis, I went straight to my closet, shut the door, curled up in the corner, and fell apart.
How did I miss it?
Bonus: As a bonus for joining my weekly newsletter, get this free checklist to help you watch for these hidden signs of anxiety in your child.
This Is Why
Months after my daughter’s diagnosis, I still feel guilty that I didn’t see the signs earlier.
The truth is that you never think it will happen to your child.
Maybe you’ve read about how anxiety disorders are one of the most common health issues for kids and adolescents these days…but that doesn’t apply to your child.
Sure, your child may struggle a bit in certain situations – maybe they have a hard time falling asleep at night or get extra nervous about tests at school or worry about making friends (and keeping friends) – but that’s just part of childhood, right?
But Here’s What I Learned the Hard Way
Every child experiences anxious feelings, so yes, that is just part of childhood. But sometimes, those anxious feelings are a sign of an underlying anxiety disorder.
In other words, for some kids, those anxious feelings are a sign that their brain overreacts to some triggers. Their bodies get stuck in a constant loop of the fight or flight response. Their brain and body feel the same as if they were constantly being hunted by a hungry lion.
How common is it? One study of over 10,000 kids discovered that more than 30 percent of those children had an anxiety disorder.
Won’t Kids Just Get Over It?
Honestly, that’s what I thought. I thought we could cope with my child’s sleep struggles and her endless worries about school, and eventually she would just grow out of them.
But as a child’s brain develops, their anxiety can intensify. Left unchecked, childhood anxiety can cause other serious issues.
Academic struggles. Depression. Substance abuse. Eating disorders. And my throat feels tight as I type this next part because this isn’t theoretical or a statistic – this could happen to my child – kids with anxiety are at increased risk of suicidal thoughts.
This is my baby. When I held my baby in my arms that very first time years ago, I didn’t yet know her brain would just happen to be a little too sensitive to triggers and stress.
It took me too long to realize my child might be struggling with an anxiety disorder. Two different pediatricians didn’t suggest she may have an anxiety disorder, even after I described the classic symptoms. The only reason we found out was because I felt in my gut that something wasn’t right, so I took her to a third doctor.
And now I’m on a mission to help other parents notice the signs of childhood anxiety early.
How Do You Know If Your Child Has Anxiety?
The hardest part is that your child won’t come out and say, “I feel anxious.” You have to watch for clues.
But first, a warning: I am not a medical expert. I’m just a mom who’s been in your shoes, and I know what it’s like to worry about your child.
So I compiled these signs and symptoms from several reputable resources to give you one single checklist for symptoms of anxiety in children.
At the end of this post, you can also get a free printable childhood anxiety symptoms checklist that you can fill out and take to your pediatrician’s office.
This is the checklist I wish I’d had years ago for my child.
Anxiety in Children: A Symptoms Checklist for Parents
Please watch for these signs in your child and see your child’s doctor if you notice any of them on a regular basis.
But keep in mind that experiencing one of these symptoms does not necessarily mean your child has an anxiety disorder. Your child’s doctor will likely be most interested in whether the symptoms are getting in the way of your child functioning in their daily life or if they’re impacting the rest of the family.
For example, if math homework every night leads to a meltdown or if it takes your child so long to fall asleep that she’s feeling tired the next day and unable to focus at school – those may be signs of an anxiety disorder.
With that said, remember that anxiety doesn’t just go away on its own. Without treatment, childhood anxiety can intensify and spur other serious mental health issues.
Note: For the source where you can find out more about each of these childhood anxiety symptoms, click the »» character after the checklist item.
Listen for These 15 Phrases That Are Code Words
If your child says anything like this on a regular basis, these phrases can be code words for “I’m anxious”:
- “My tummy hurts.” or “I feel like I might throw up.” Anxious feelings often present in the body. Stomachaches are very common for anxious kids because in the throes of anxiety, the body redirects blood flow from the abdominal organs to the brain, which slows down digestion. That experience can cause nausea. »»
- “I’m not hungry.” When digestion shuts down because of anxiety, so does the need to eat. »»
- “Please don’t make me.” or “Can I just stay home?” or “I don’t want to!” Kids with anxiety may start to avoid stressful situations. »»
- “Please don’t leave me.” or “Is it time to leave yet?” or “I want to go home.” Anxious kids in a stressful environment or situation will typically ask to leave so they can get away from the stress. »»
- “I feel like I can’t do anything right.” or “I feel like there’s something wrong with me.” Kids with anxiety can be very hard on themselves. »»
- “I can’t do it!” or “Can you do it for me?” Anxious kids tend to expect perfection from themselves, so they may avoid a difficult task to avoid making a mistake. »»
- “I’m sorry.” Because anxious kids are typically hard on themselves, they may apologize often, especially for small things. »»
- “Are you mad at me?” Many anxious children will seek constant approval or reassurance from others. »»
- “I can’t fall asleep.” Anxious kids may have difficulty falling asleep. »»
- “I’m so tired.” Kids with anxiety tend to have difficulty falling asleep or getting restful sleep, but sometimes the only sign you’ll see may be them complaining of feeling tired. »»
- “But what if…? What if…?” Anxious kids typically worry constantly, sometimes about things that are far in the future. »»
- “Nobody wants to play with me.” or “I don’t really have many friends.” Some kids with anxiety experience an intense fear of social situations. »»
- “Are you sure…?” or “Do you think…?” Anxious kids tend to ask lots of questions to seek reassurance from you about their worries, like “Are you sure we’re not running late?” or “Do you think the teacher will like my science project?” »»
- “I feel hot.” or “I can’t breathe.” An anxiety attack (or more commonly referred to as a panic attack) can cause hot flashes and sweating. Other panic attack symptoms include a racing or pounding heartbeat, trembling or shaking, shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, lightheadedness, tingling sensations, and chills. »»
- “I have a headache.” Anxious feelings or a panic attack can also cause a headache. »»
Watch for These 15 Behaviors
The following behaviors can be a sign or symptom of childhood anxiety. This list is not exhaustive, but it gives you one single list of the most common child anxiety symptoms as compiled from several sources.
- Cries often or often seems sad »»
- Becomes angry easily »»
- Acts extremely sensitive, such as taking things personally »»
- Gets in a bad mood easily or with no clear reason »»
- Acts irritable often »»
- Seems to have difficulty concentrating or focusing »»
- Gets scared easily, sometimes due to phobias or exaggerated fears »»
- Wakes up crying in the middle of the night because of bad dreams or nightmares »»
- Behaves in obsessive or compulsive ways, such as worrying about germs, arranging objects in a specific way, finger tapping, and so on »»
- Experiences intense tantrums or meltdowns »»
- Turns down opportunities to socialize with peers »»
- Seems overly concerned with their grades in school »»
- Overreacts to any constructive criticism from a parent or teacher »»
- Runs away or hides to avoid stressful situations »»
- Acts clingy when you try to leave them for a short time »»
Next Steps: What to Do With This Child Anxiety Checklist
If you need immediate relief to help your child with anxious feelings, here are 8 quick fixes to help your child feel better in those tough moments. You might also find it helpful to pick up a couple children’s books about anxious feelings to read to your child. Here are our favorites:
Then moving forward as a next step, take this child anxiety checklist and your notes to your pediatrician. If your pediatrician doesn’t take these signs seriously, find another doctor.
We had to talk to three doctors before someone took my child’s mental health seriously. When it comes to your child’s health, it never hurts to get a second (or third or fourth) opinion.
If you’re worried about how much it will cost to see a mental health professional for your child, I get it. I was worried too. Some health insurance plans don’t cover mental health as well as they should, which is a shame. If you’re in the same boat, here are a few thoughts to consider:
- Talk to your child’s primary care physician. They may have some knowledge of childhood anxiety and be able to offer some advice on coping strategies.
- Ask your child’s doctor if your area has a low-cost mental health clinic for children. It may take a while to get in with an appointment, but that’s better than never going.
- Pick up a good book on childhood anxiety for parents like The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears.
Get Your Free Printable: Anxiety in Children Symptoms Checklist
Use this checklist to evaluate your child for signs and symptoms of anxiety, then follow up with your child’s doctor.
- Get the free checklist. Join my weekly-ish newsletter and as a bonus, you’ll get the printable! Just click here to get it and subscribe.
- Print and fill out the child anxiety checklist. You may want to jot down notes in the margins and take a few days to watch and listen for the signs. Fill in the appropriate bubble for any day you notice that behavior.
- Make an appointment with your child’s doctor. Remember: If your child’s doctor doesn’t seem to take you seriously, get a second opinion.
- Help your child calm down. While you wait to meet with your child’s doctor, you can help your child cope with anxious feelings with these 8 surefire ways to calm an anxious child.
Here’s a sneak peek of your checklist:
Before you go, get my FREE cheat sheet: 75 Positive Phrases Every Child Needs to Hear
What would you add to this childhood anxiety symptoms checklist? Share with your fellow parents in a comment below.