When I was little, riding in the car meant one thing to me – no bathroom for a long stretch with an overactive bladder. My dad hated stopping. I actually didn’t even know that you could stop anywhere besides a rest area until I was much older.
Most long car rides were spent staring out the window, watching for a rest area sign, trying my best to wait. Even then I had to muster up the courage to say I needed to use the bathroom. Nine times out of ten it was met with moans and groans and, “Mary has to use the bathroom again.”
I felt so broken and ashamed of my body. But the more I thought about it, the worse the anxiety got.
The worst part – I was only six years old.
Why Is There So Much Anxiety in Kids?
As time went on my bathroom anxiety only increased. A 30-minute car ride to church seemed daunting with all the “what-ifs” floating around in my head. The two-hour drive to Grandma’s house felt like an eternity.
But why? Why was I so anxious? Why does any child get anxious?
Anxiety is often perceived as a condition, something you have. Almost like a disease. It defines you.
In reality, anxiety is just a feeling or emotion. Like sadness, anger, grief, joy, or shame, anxiety is something a child feels in his or her body. However, many kids are disconnected from their bodies.
The anxiety feels like it’s in the head while the symptom is in the body. And they feel disconnected. Almost as if the body and the head are two separate things.
What Causes Anxiety in Kids?
Just as with any other uncomfortable emotion, anxiety stems from a child’s lack of feeling safe. Whether feeling unsafe is perceived or real doesn’t matter. The body’s response is the same.
A specific experience initiates the process, kicking off the stress response (also called a sympathetic response or fight or flight response). But any event that invokes similar feelings can trigger the response of anxiety time and time again, even though there is no real danger.
Children often develop coping mechanisms to help them feel safe and avoid that uncomfortable anxious feeling.
When I was young I became anxious about car rides as a protective measure to help my body feel safe. Car rides meant danger. Being at home felt safe. So I developed anxiety as a warning sign. My protector part took over. Even though there wasn’t really any danger, my body perceived it as a threat to my safety.
Can Anxiety in Kids Be Beneficial?
I once heard someone say that how you think about anxiety makes all the difference. In other words, you have to put it into perspective. Anxiety around things like public speaking, taking a test, or looking just right on the first day of school is an indicator that you care deeply about something.
If your child has anxiety about an upcoming test, they likely care about their grades in some form. Whether that is self-motivation or they feel pressure to please others with good grades, it still leads to anxiety.
If giving a speech causes anxiety, your child probably cares about how others perceive him or her and he or she wants to be well-liked and fit in.
So even though the anxiety is still an uncomfortable feeling, knowing that it shows you care helps put it into perspective.
The goal is not to make the anxiety disappear. The goal is for you to control the anxiety instead of the anxiety controlling you. No anxiety would mean you don’t care about anything.
Symptoms of Anxiety in Kids
Anxiety can take on many forms. Each child will express anxiety differently. Some anxiety symptoms to watch for include:
- Constant worry or panic attacks
- Obsessive or compulsive behaviors, like chewing on clothes, biting nails, or requiring specific routines
- Intense anger
- Frequent headaches, stomach aches, or illness
- Intense fear of being separated from parents or caregivers – more than developmentally appropriate separation anxiety
- Isolation or fear of being around other people
- Bedwetting or frequent urination
- Excessive sweating
- Disordered eating (under or over-eating)
- Making excuses about not being able to participate in normal activities
All of these can happen once in a while to just about anyone. But if your child exhibits these symptoms regularly, he or she may be struggling with anxiety.
If you’re not sure if your child has anxiety, there is a simple quiz that can help you figure it out! Take the anxiety quiz HERE.
Lifestyle Causes of Anxiety in Kids
Why are more and more kids experiencing anxiety? It is largely due to our culture.
Families are busier than ever. Often both parents work. Combine this with multiple activities for each child, and you have a schedule where there is no time for family meals or relaxing. That means no time for connection and feeling safe.
Poor diets also contribute to anxiety. Brain health is one of the most important factors when it comes to anxiety and nervous system regulation in kids. But processed foods, vegetable oils, and sugar lead to inflammation and blood sugar imbalance. This has a tremendous impact on brain health and anxiety.
If a child lives in a truly unsafe environment, it will likely lead to anxiety as well. This can include abuse, fighting, or his or her needs not being met physically or emotionally.
Too little attention or affection is often at the heart of anxiety. Kids need to feel safe. Lacking affection creates a sense of not feeling safe.
Finally, too much stimulation also creates a lack of safety. This can include any kind of screen, social media, clutter in the house, large crowds, or simply having access to too much stuff. Keeping the home tidy, only allowing a few toys out at a time, and limiting screen time will go a long way to reduce anxiety.
Whether a child experiences too much too soon or too little too often, it will feel overwhelming and can trigger anxious thoughts.
Is Anxiety Preventable in Kids?
Can you prevent anxiety in your kids? Not necessarily. You can’t predict how your child will react to a certain event no matter how well you know your child or how much you try to protect them.
However, there are ways to reduce the risk of anxiety and support your child.
First and foremost is nervous system regulation. At the heart of anxiety is a dysregulated nervous system, and it’s more common than you think! Learn more about nervous system regulation for kids HERE!
Second, supporting your child with a diet of real, nourishing food and gentle parenting will help keep inflammation and fear down.
Finally, empowering your kids with knowledge and tools is essential. Set an example of how to feel and express emotions in a healthy way.
This may require you to learn more about nervous system regulation yourself! Many parents experience anxiety, and it’s hard to help your child with anxiety if you are dysregulated. Teaching your children directly is one of the best ways to combat anxiety.
You can do just that with the Nutritional Navigation eCourse! There are five modules dedicated to nervous system regulation. Learn more HERE.
Recently when I was sick after taking care of sick kids all week my daughter asked if she’d get to see her best friend the next day. I told her I couldn’t have people over because I was sick. Her immediate reaction was to declare she probably won’t get to see her friend for almost a year!
I explained that it’s very healthy to feel disappointed and even express that with words. But it’s not OK to make me feel guilty for being sick and blaming me for her feelings. Teaching kids how to express emotions, especially the uncomfortable ones, in a healthy way is so important!
Is Therapy Effective for Kids?
I have dealt with anxiety most of my life. So I did what most people do – I went to a professional to talk about it. I worked with a psychologist for over ten years utilizing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. It taught me one important lesson – that talk therapy doesn’t work.
The reason this type of therapy isn’t effective is because it perpetuates the disconnect between the mind and the body. You can try to think yourself out of anxiety all day long. But if you don’t help your body feel it, it won’t work.
It is effective to get professional help. Just be choosy. Find an expert in nervous system regulation and somatic experience. I made more progress in three weeks with somatic experience than I made in ten years with CBT.
Because I was never taught how to handle my anxiety, it followed me into adulthood, turning into obsessive compulsive disorder, disordered eating, and panic attacks. The behaviors that kept me safe when I was a child became my worst enemies over time.
Could my parents have prevented my anxiety? No. They could not predict how I would respond to a particular event. Could they have recognized it and helped me through it? Yes! And that is my hope for you.
Helping your child understand anxiety, its purpose, and how to mitigate it will help prevent potential lifelong struggles and disease. You can’t predict if or when an event will trigger anxiety in your child.
But you can learn how to recognzie and handle it so that it does not control you or your child.
Anxiety is not a disease or a life sentence. It is an emotion that your child can learn to express and experience safely.
Does your child struggle with anxiety? What were the red flags?Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.
2 thoughts on “Why Kids Have Anxiety | Root Causes of Anxiety in Kids”
Hello! This is so important and I wholeheartedly agree with this, especially about the diet and not feeling safe. However, as a former outpatient therapist working with children and as a mom, I would add two more causes of anxiety. First, yes families are more busy. But parents are now more anxious than ever themselves (probably partially due to the busyness). Children are incredibly perceptive and can pick up on this, and aren’t learning how to self-regulate. Children naturally pick up on the parents behavior- when a parent is calm, the child benefits from that and naturally calms him/herself. When the parent is anxious, the child picks up on this as well. Second, besides not feeling safe, all people, young and old, feel anxiety when not in control. For young children, they feel in control through play, especially imaginary play. As they get older, they need given responsible choices. Adults can empathize as anxiety skyrocketed due to Covid and the measures put in place at that time. Older children and teens aren’t often given very many choices and hence, the opportunity to fail. Parents constantly rescue them, from even the slightest harm. When they don’t experience any “failure”, they feel out of control when they eventually do experience it. Parents themselves must start to manage their own anxiety and help their children gain a sense of control.
Great additions, Sharon! A dysregulated parent has a profound impact on a child.