As a parent, it can be hard to determine whether your child is struggling with anxiety or simply nervous about new experiences.
For example, the night before the first day of school is a perfectly normal time for your child to be nervous.
Depending on how long the nerves last, though, can be a bellwether for anxiety too, says Irina Gorelik, a child psychologist at Williamsburg Therapy Group. Being nervous and being anxious might present in the same way, she says, but the latter impacts the child more severely.
"First day of school jitters are typical, however if the anxiety starts to manifest itself beyond the first week or two, and starts to impact functioning — the ability to get to school, academics, focus, socialization — it can be helpful to seek out further professional support," she says.
Here's what to look out for if you believe your child might be struggling with anxiety.
They seek constant reassurance
If your child is repeatedly asking you to reassure them of their safety, this might be a sign they are experiencing some anxiety.
Common questions they might ask include:
- Am I going to be sick?
- Will I be okay?
- What if something bad happens?
Gorelik refers to these as "what if" questions.
They also might start repeating behaviors, she adds: "Repetitive or ritualistic behaviors, or fixation on things that may otherwise seem trivial," might also be a sign of anxiety.
They have an illogical illness
Because a child doesn't have the vocabulary to say they are feeling anxious, they might instead express that their stomach hurts or they just don't feel well.
"Often, if a child is anxious, they might exhibit physical symptoms that otherwise cannot be explained, and they often become more prevalent after a specific life event, transition, or change," Gorelik says.
Some symptoms include:
- Difficulty focusing
- Stomach aches
Difficultly sleeping or eating, beyond just not liking bedtime or being a picky eater, might also be signs of a larger issue, Gorelik adds.
Often, if a child is anxious, they might exhibit physical symptoms that otherwise cannot be explained, and they often become more prevalent after a specific life event, transition, or changeIrina GorelikTherapist
These behavioral changes coincide with a big transition
"When there is general consistency and stability in a child's life, it helps them feel safe and their nervous systems may not be activated as frequently," Gorelik says.
A big change could be de-stabilizing. Some transitions that can trigger a child's anxiety include:
- Beginnings or endings of school or camp
- Shifts in family dynamics like a separation, divorce, loss of a loved one, or a new sibling
"Children can definitely cope with any of these changes in healthy ways as long as they are given space to explore the impact, and feel prepared for the changes," Gorelik says. Therapy can serve as that space.
The age or development of your child matters when deciding which the type of therapy would work best.
A child below the age of four might not have the ability to sit through an entire therapy session. If your child is between the ages of 4 and 8, you might want to explore options outside talk therapy, Gorelik suggests.
"Younger children often do not have the verbal capacity to communicate their feelings and instead are able to demonstrate them through play, art, and other modalities," Gorelik says.
If you do explore therapy for your child, the environment to which they return after therapy will impact how well the the sessions work.
In other words, if you expect your child to put in the work at therapy you will need to, as well. "Your child doesn't live alone," Gorelik says.
This might include regular consultations and check-ins where you can learn strategies to help your child cope with their emotions.
"Children often feel alone with their emotions and knowing that they can communicate with their parents about tricky, uncomfortable feelings can make a major difference," Gorelik says.