Picture this: what if you were going through something really difficult and experiencing deep inner turmoil, anxious thoughts, stress or worry but couldn’t express or verbalize it in a way that others could understand. Imagine you suddenly lost your ability to verbally communicate what you feel. Every time you try to express it, it comes across as an angry or emotionally exaggerated outburst.
It’s easy to forget, but that’s exactly how children (especially young children) feel much of the time. Unlike us as adults, they have not yet developed the skills to verbalize or self-analyze and fully express their emotions. As a result, their feelings are often expressed in other ways. Sometimes these are obvious (such as physical or emotional outbursts); other times they aren’t so clear. In some cases, children are saying “i’m anxious” indirectly by small clues in their behavior. The list below could help you identify childhood stress symptoms and help you discern if they’re struggling with anxious thoughts.
1. “What If…”
When a child is faced with a frightening situation, their minds may start to race. They may try to find security by talking through potentially threatening or unlikely scenarios. This could lead to a “What if” game where the child seeks reassurance from their parent. A series of ‘What ifs’ usually signals underlying fear or discomfort about an upcoming transition or event.
2. “I need to pee, again.” (or Other Behavioral Relapses)
Bladder control may also be a sign of stress in children. If they repeatedly need to go to the bathroom, it could be indicator of underlying fear or stress. Young children often don’t know how to communicate or verbalize those anxious thoughts, therefore they will translate those feelings into a physical need that they can make sense of or express. Needing to pee isn’t the only clue, however. When children are anxious, they may also have other emotional and physical relapses, where they will revert to immature/unformed behaviors. This could include: unusual bed wetting, accidents, thumb-sucking, talking like a baby or becoming unusually clingy, attached and attention-seeking.
3. Anything Angry
Anxious children may have angry outbursts over simple or even senseless things. These outburst could come from bottled up emotions that have nothing to do with the current situation. Often times bottled emotions or stress in children can masquerade as anger because children often lack the ability to analyze, self-regulate or understand how to successfully communicate their needs or frustrations. Anger may be the only way the child knows how to release the tension from these unresolved emotional issues.
4. Trouble Sleeping or Continual Nightmares
In some cases difficulty with sleep can be normal for children. However, persistent sleep issues and nightmares could be a form of childhood stress symptoms. When daily distractions have ended, and there is nothing to occupy a child’s mind, anxious thoughts can surface. An anxious child will often focus on fears or insecurities during wind-down time, which can lead to sleepless nights or bedtime difficulty. Along with this, a child may make excuses to get out of bed—requests for snacks, water, bathroom breaks or struggle to sleep soundly through the night. These are a few of the ways your child may be expressing their need to take their minds off of being alone or inside their own head.
5. “I’m Tired”
If your child is often fatigued, it may stem from an inability to shut off or process fearful and anxious thoughts which can be mentally and even emotionally draining. This may also be related to any restlessness they experience at night. If your child shows signs of excessive tiredness, it may come from an inner struggle that they may not know how to fully express.
6. “Nobody Wants To Play With Me”
Persistent anxious thoughts can lead to feelings of self-doubt, isolation, lack of confidence or energy to socially engage with others. If your child is struggling with inner conflict, they may withdraw in order to feel secure or process their emotions. This can sometimes become a cycle where kids feel like a ‘black sheep’ or as though they don’t belong.
7. “Don’t Leave”
Separation anxiety is common in young children; but if you notice that your child is continually struggling, even in a comfortable and familiar environment then it could mean that they’re struggling internally with emotional stress or anxious thoughts that is being communicated through their need to cling to you at all times.
8. “I’m Not Hungry”
If your child struggles with anxious thoughts or stress they may avoid eating, which could be a tell-tale sign that they are dealing with stomach discomfort, worry and stress. In some instances, their appetites will waver, or they will become picky and disinterested in even their favorite foods. They may only eat a small amount or avoid food all together. Them saying “I’m not hungry” could be their way of communicating a deeper emotional problem that they don’t know how to otherwise express.
9. “My Tummy Hurts”
Lastly — If there’s no obvious physical reason for tummy pain, then stress could be at the bottom of your child’s upset stomach. Anxious thoughts and gastrointestinal discomfort go hand in hand, whether for a child or adult. One helpful clue is to pay attention to when the child complains of a tummy ache. Regular upset stomachs at specific times could signal that something is very stressful is going on inside their mind. According to child psychologist Kathryn Boger, chronic stomach aches may be a more serious problem. If your child does struggle with chronic stomach pain, don’t hesitate to seek medical help.
Solutions for What To Do If Your Child Is Anxious
Now that we have gone over a list of ways children may express their anxious thoughts. We want to provide you with some helpful tips and possible solutions. If you suspect that your child is struggling with anxious thoughts or behaviors, it can be stressful for you as a parent to navigate and understand, especially if you don’t struggle with anxious thoughts yourself. Thankfully, there are many proactive steps you can take to help them process and manage their emotions. Here is a quick run-down of some approaches you can take to help them work through their anxieties.
Communication & Understanding — We can’t stress this enough. Simply taking the time to talk to your child to try and understand their perspective can go a really long way. Even if the topic or cause of their stress or anxious thoughts seem silly or senseless to you. Learning to communicate on their level can sometimes reveal underlying anxieties you didn’t even know existed. Engaging them in a positive and peaceful way can often open doors that can lead to a helpful solution. By communicating and ensuring your child feels as though they have a “voice” will help them feel more comfortable to share their feelings without fear of consequence or dismissal. A great quote by Catherine M. Wallace provides great perspective on parent/child communiation.
“Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.”
– Catherine M. Wallace
Peaceful Parenting Tactics — Speaking of peaceful approaches, demonstrating control over your own emotions is a great way to help your child do the same. Children often emulate the behaviors and examples set before them. Often times, we as parents have a knee jerk reaction to things our children do without realizing it. Peaceful Parenting Tactics and Communication & Understanding go hand-in-hand. By practicing a peaceful approach and remembering to keep your own frustrations in check will help not only you, but also your child in the long-haul. Your child will thrive, have better communication skills, more self-confidence and a better ability to manage their own thoughts, behaviors and emotions.
Play Therapy — If you don’t know what play therapy is, you should absolutely check it out – google play therapists near you to learn about all the positive benefits that come with it. As we’ve discussed, children can’t always verbalize what they’re feeling, however they can express their emotions through play. A play therapist may have art supplies, musical instruments, toys, etc., these items become tools for the child to communicate what’s going on inside their minds. Children will often reenact scenarios or events from their perspective through play. Their play will typically parallel to real life experiences or past events. This becomes an avenue for them to release tension, bottled emotions and gives them the ability to work through different stressors or anxieties they may be unable to verbalize. Play therapy is a great way for your child to develop the tools they need to be successful later in life and manage any internal struggles they might be dealing with. It is also an excellent tool for parents to better understand their child’s individual needs and also learn how to adjust their parenting style to accommodate those needs.
Try the “Smiling Mind” App — Smiling Mind is a great app for kids, and it’s great for anyone struggling with anxious thoughts. Watch the video here, and you can learn how it helps. Smiling Mind promotes mindfulness meditation and helps children develop mental strength, focus, and emotional resilience.
If you have a child struggling with anxious thoughts, then there are many options and resources out there that can help them. You may also begin by looking at therapy resources in your area. There may be programs or individuals that can help point you in the right direction.