How to Identify Chronic Anxiety in Kids—and What Parents Can Do to Help

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While young children may not be able to tell you that they’re feeling anxious about something, you can often tell by their body language.

We tend to think of anxiety as a mental health problem that only affects adults, but the truth is even very young children (ages six and under) can exhibit signs of anxiety, says Jill Fodstad, Ph.D., HSPP, BCBA-D, clinical psychology at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.

Young kids may have a lot of anxiety about social situations, like going to school, says Fodstad, “and so they may come up with a lot of excuses to try to get out of going, such the classic, ‘my stomach hurts.’” While young children may not be able to tell you that they’re feeling anxious about something, you can often tell by their body language, adds Fodstad. Some kids may appear very withdrawn, while others may have frequent temper tantrums, she says.

If you have a young child who is showing signs of anxiety, Fodstad recommends the following:

Use positive reinforcement. Resist the urge to say “you need to calm down” when talking to a child with anxiety, says Fodstad. That kind of response usually doesn't help. What does help is to come up with a plan that allows your child to deal with their anxiety in a way that results in a positive experience.

“For instance, if your child is very nervous around dogs, you might spend time watching videos of dogs, or have your child practice being around just one dog for a short amount of time,” says Fodstad. Or, a child who is anxious in social situations might practice by having a play date at home with just one or two other children. “When your child sees that they are able to do these things, it gives them a sense of pride and accomplishment,” she says.

Watch your own attitude. The tone that you take with your child is key, says Fodstad. There’s a fine line between being supportive and being overly empathetic, which will just feed their anxiety. “Children learn by observation, and so if they see you getting upset and nervous, they are likely to display that same behavior,” she says.

The more neutral you can be in these situations, the better. The message you want your child to hear is, “It’s okay to have these feelings, but you can still do this,” says Fodstad.

Talk to your pediatrician. If your child seems to chronically anxious most of time, it’s a good idea to bring this up with your child’s doctor, says Fodstad, since he or she may recommend a consultation with a child psychologist. “If you treat the problem earlier rather than later, it will be easier to get it under control,” she says. 

-- By Patricia Scanlon

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