How does anxiety manifest in children? I saw it happen in the most unexpected place—Disneyland. My 7-year-old, overwhelmed by the crowd, was hyper-focused on her younger sister and desperately trying to manage her. At this rate, no one was going to have a magical day. My husband noticed she was anxious and said, “Hey, I’ve got your sister. I need you to help me with something. My wedding ring is kind of loose and I need you to help me make sure it doesn’t fall off.”
She excitedly agreed, held his hand, and was able to look up and take in the magic. Every once in a while, she would report to her dad: “Yup! Your ring is still there.” With this trick, he was able to reassure her and then redirect her. Using tools like this is great, but first, you have to recognize the behavior as a reaction to anxiety. Sometimes it can be difficult to spot. Here are 3 sneaky ways anxiety shows up in children.
Perfectionism is the pursuit of being enough. It’s impossible ever to satisfy it. The child who needs to have things perfect needs to hear that she is good enough exactly as she is. Make sure to tell her often how proud you are of her character more than what she accomplishes.
The perfectionist is also seeking a sense of control, like my daughter did at Disney. You can help her find that through reassurance and a consistent schedule. When children can easily anticipate what will happen next and when it’ll happen, they can relax.
The Meddler is the child who gets involved in other people’s business or tries to control other people’s behavior. If you observe your child being bossy or meddling in things that don’t apply to him, he may be dealing with anxiety. But the need to control is driven by fear, so reassure him that you are in charge and that things are OK.
If you observe your child being bossy or meddling in things that don’t apply to him, he may be dealing with anxiety.
Teach your meddler what is and what is not his responsibility. If he thrives on responsibility, give him something small to manage. This could be to report to you each day how many eggs are in the refrigerator or to water the plants once a week. And make sure never to involve children (or let them involve themselves) in adult-sized problems, like your marriage or the family finances.
The Bully is the child who constantly picks on siblings, plays tricks on people, or teases all the time. We know being the victim of a bully can cause anxiety, but the opposite is true as well. Stress and uncertainty trigger the fight or flight response, which leaves your child angry with no way to communicate why. This stored up energy needs to get out and often does through teasing and bullying.
You can help a child better express negative energy from stress through physical activity like sports or dance classes. When the body is tired, the mind can relax.
Anxiety in kids isn’t always straightforward. In your experience, how does anxiety manifest in children?