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Are your kids stressed or anxious?

July 29, 2013

This post was written by the Patient and Family Counseling team at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children. 

While anxiety disorders are often thought of as an adult condition, many children develop anxiety as well. Anxiety disorders are prevalent among children, girls more than boys, and occurring in about 13 of every 100 children and adolescents ages 9 to 17, according to the National Mental Health Information Center.

Early detection and treatment of anxiety in children can prevent future difficulties in social or academic development and feelings of low self-esteem. It is important for parents and caregivers to know the signs of anxiety so that the problem can be diagnosed and treated. However, for parents, this task is difficult since children often feel uncomfortable or unsure of how express and identify their anxiety. In children, these symptoms can manifest themselves as other problems that are seen as behavioral, either emotional or physical, and often difficult to pinpoint.

Physical symptoms of anxiety

The physical symptoms of anxiety in children can include headaches and stomachaches. These symptoms usually happen before the anxiety-causing experience. For example, some children may become scared or defiant before taking a test and develop stomach problems. Frequent urination and diarrhea are common among anxious children and other physical symptoms include difficulty sleeping, fatigue, dizziness and shortness of breath. Physical symptoms of stress may appear in the form of skin problems, worsening asthma and sleep disorders, muscle pain, changes in appetite (overeating or not eating), and fatigue.

Emotional symptoms of anxiety

These symptoms include irritability and trouble concentrating. You may find that your child’s behavior may be worse when they're feeling anxious or stressed. This could happen at home or at school. Behavioral changes such as being aggressive and more irritable than normal, getting frustrated easily, bed-wetting, may happen more often as stress symptoms in children. Wanting to be alone and frequent lying may also occur. Younger kids tend to develop habits such as nose picking, playing with hair or sucking their thumbs, biting their nails or skin. Older kids may exhibit symptoms such as disobeying instructions coming from parents or teachers, or bullying other kid. Older kids may also be more able to express their feelings and tell you what they are afraid of.

As a parent or caretaker of a child that seems anxious, it’s important to encourage your child to talk about his fears and concerns. Emphasizing that plenty of rest and a nutritious diet are the two most efficient methods to manage stress and anxiety. Many times, stress in kids is lessened just by talking to their parents. Teaching your child relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and imagining a place that brings feelings of comfort, often helps them to better manage their social situations.

In many cases, parents are able to help their kids cope with stress, however if your child's behavior is changing dramatically and is constant, a licensed therapist may be your next step.