One of the really hard things about parenting young kids is that you don't know what you don't know. And your kids are too young to tell you. So when your child misbehaves or throws tantrums it's not easy to discern whether its a health issue or it's just an angry child.
Essentially, anxiety in children tends to manifest as negative behaviors that you may have glimpsed briefly in the past but are becoming noticeable, consistent and intense. As a mom, that is super frustrating. I couldn't understand why transitions had to be such an ordeal. I felt totally unable to handle these newly arising attitudes, and didn't know how to deal with the fact that she was not responding to time outs, punishment, yelling, or any other methods that were supposed to be effective.
Unfortunately, Anxiety doesn't have a minimum age requirement. It can be difficult and scary both for the children and for we parents. Not to mention the stress it adds to the family and any siblings. It can really do a number on the family dynamic.
Additionally, dealing with disorders like anxiety in children is even more tricky than usual because, oftentimes, it may be hard to figure out if your child is suffering from anxiety or from another condition. In children, the symptoms of mental health disorders like anxiety often overlap with symptoms of others and it can be very easy to mistake anxiety for a learning disability or an attention deficit disorder.
Anxiety and ADHD, at times, often look very much like each other, and it takes a discerning eye to figure out which one it is. And, to complicate things further, sometimes there can be a little bit of both. So how do you know what to look for and when to ask for help?
One big sign can be curiosity. Kids are curious. Very curious. And we like that, we want that, we encourage that. Curiosity leads to interest, to learning, to an engaged child. But sometimes that curiosity sometimes masks anxiety. It took me a while to notice, to see that there was something else going on in my little girl’s head — to see that her questions were morphing into something slightly different. When her “how does or what is” shifted into more “what if’s”. What if this happens, what if that happens.
What if’s can hide — or reveal — fears. My daughter needed to know what’s happening, when. Change of plans agitated her; then she’d wonder what if it doesn’t go as planned? What if something goes wrong?
Another sign can be stomach aches or headaches. It can be refusing to go to school or just having meltdowns before school. For my daughter it was often about her hair or shoes when she was in elementary school but later she definitely had the tummy aches and then full on anxiety attacks.
Many anxious kids have good imaginations and yes, she has a huge imagination! I just love all the creativity bursting out of her. I want to bottle it up sometimes so I can let it out and breathe some joy into the world. But when her imagination starts filling in questions with worst-case scenarios, I think uh-oh. Now, what do I do?
Well, it turns out what we don’t want to do is tell her not to worry. Honestly, that helps practically nobody, ever. In fact when I tried that — because of course, it’s the first thing I did — she just took the imagined outcome further and further. Finally, I realized that instead of my just saying “it’s ok” and “don’t worry about it”, I should take another tack. I also learned the triggers. Changes to her day, transitions, separation from me all would likely kick up her anxiety level.
So I try walking her through whatever the fear is to get her to reassure herself. Sometimes if it’s easy, I just talk her through the fear to show her she is ok and does have the strength to handle it. Often she’s not feeling confident or is out of her comfort zone. I say, “Looks like you’re pretty worried about this, what can we do to help calm you down? “ Sometimes she can bring herself back with that. Sometimes we have to dance or stomp it out. And other times it comes down to breathing. Just breathing with her. In and out, ever so slowly.
So notice the questions your child is asking; notice if there are triggers before a meltdown; ask some questions of your own. There are many, many answers.
But expecting them to just get over it, isn’t one of them.