“Mom,” my daughter groaned, her arms crossed over her stomach. “My tummy hurts.” This was the eighth day in a row she had complained. Yet she had no symptoms of a stomach bug.
I wondered yet again what was going on. I blamed her woes on our rushed mornings. Perhaps she just needed some attention? I shoved her lunchbox into her backpack and yelled at my other kids to get their shoes on. The bus was going to arrive at any moment.
Looking back, I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to figure out that my child’s stomach aches were one of her anxiety symptoms. For years, my child went undiagnosed and, therefore, spent too much time being misunderstood and dismissed. I’m even further mortified by the fact that I have an anxiety diagnosis myself. How did I miss my child’s anxiety?
According to the CDC, 7.1% of children, ages three to seventeen, have an anxiety diagnosis. That’s 4.4 million kids. The Mayo Clinic states that there are multiple types of anxiety, including panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), separation anxiety, and a specific phobia. Selective mutism is also an anxiety-based disorder in which a child only speaks in certain situations or does not speak at all.
Childhood anxiety can look like a lot of other issues and manifests in a myriad of ways, which is why it can be easily missed by parents. The symptoms vary child to child. The reality is, anxiety can have some unsuspecting symptoms.
Though there are ways to help children cope with individual symptoms, it’s important to seek help for the disorder as a whole.
As mentioned in our case, my daughter claimed to have stomach aches. But when I look back, I realize they occurred at the same time every day—right before it was time to leave for school. Anxiety-related tummy troubles might present as an ache, constipation, diarrhea, or nausea. They can occur constantly or only in certain situations.
The long-standing go-to for stomach aches? Mints. However, chewing gum has proven to be effective in reducing anxiety. If the child is at home, a heating pad–with parental supervision–can be comforting.
Those with anxiety tend to unconsciously tense up parts of or all of their bodies. Of course, this can cause muscle soreness. It’s not uncommon for parents to brush off their child’s muscle soreness as growing pains.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of American, anxiety management techniques like yoga and mindfulness practices, such as meditation, can be helpful to the patient experiencing sore muscles and chronic pain. Some guided meditations suggest that the listener tense and then release muscle groups. Yoga helps stretch and strengthen the body. Parents can practice yoga or meditation alongside their child to establish teamwork. Chiropractic care might also be beneficial.
Dizziness is a common symptom of many different health issues, anxiety included. Dizziness can be a frightening and bothersome symptom that can interfere with the child’s daily life. Anxiety can cause dizziness due to hyperventilation, dehydration, or panic.
The Calm Clinic offers some suggestions for dealing with anxiety-induced dizziness. These include taking slow and deep breaths, drinking water, closing their eyes to re-calibrate, or focusing on a single spot to stabilize the eyes and mind.
A child with anxiety might complain of being tired all the time. When their mind is going non-stop, it can be exhausting. Also, anxiety can cause a child to have a hard time falling asleep at night. Of course, not getting enough sleep can make a child tired.
Some children with this anxiety symptom might benefit from using a weighted blanket. Lavender and peppermint are soothing scents that may help ease your child’s mind. Of course, it’s important to use essential oils safely, so utilizing these scents in the form of lotion might be healthier.
It’s difficult for a child to focus when their mind is always racing with worry. Common noises, like a nearby conversation or background music, can not only distract a child with anxiety, but can also make them upset. Parents might worry their child has ADD or ADHD when in actuality, inattentiveness and distractibility are anxiety symptoms.
Kids with this anxiety symptom might benefit from ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones. Having a quiet and comfortable designated space to retreat to can be helpful, as well as a non-stimulating place to do homework and study for tests.
It’s important for parents to understand that that these anxiety symptoms aren’t excuses. If a child feels safe enough to share their symptoms with adults, that’s a great start. Once the child has been formally diagnosed by a pediatrician, psychologist, or psychiatrist, a treatment plan can be established.
Some children benefit from therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy which can teach the child techniques on how to manage their anxiety symptoms. Parents might also receive therapy, with or without the child present, in order to best understand how to help the child with their anxiety. Medication may also be an option.
Parents should also be aware that anxiety can be a comorbid condition. Children with ADHD and autism may also have anxiety. The CDC states that approximately 73% of kids who have depression have anxiety as well. The lines between these disorders can be blurred since many symptoms overlap.
If the child’s anxiety impacts their access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), this may entitle the child to a 504 plan. A 504 lays out the accommodations the child is entitled too based on their anxiety. A few examples of accommodations for a child with anxiety include preferential classroom seating, extra time on tests, and access to a peer buddy.
Though having a child who suffers from anxiety can be difficult and concerning, parents are their child’s best advocate. By strengthening parent-child communication and being pro-active, kids can learn that their parents, doctors, and therapist are their safe places to fall.
This article is not intended to be medical advice. If you suspect your child has anxiety, please seek medical attention.