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Anxiety is not always easy to spot in children, and since children are often still learning how to identify their emotions, they are not always able to verbalize what they are experiencing. What can make it even more challenging is that a child’s anxiety can overlap with symptoms of ADD/ADHD, as children with anxiety may also fidget, be forgetful or have difficulty concentrating. It is not uncommon for children with some form of anxiety to be misdiagnosed with ADD/ADHD.


Anxiety can also be disguised as irritability or defiance, which makes it all the more confusing for adults to spot.

Most of us have long forgotten the pressures that children face and the various scenarios that can spark worries—starting a new sport, taking a test, making a new friend, and answering the teacher’s question when called upon, to name a few. With a variety of factors coming into play, when a child does not know how to manage their emotions, they will likely exhibit their feeling through a behavior. They may act out and they may withdraw. They may look like they are angry, and even make harsh statements.

Children with anxiety may make statements that are code for something else. Here are eight common examples:

1. “I don’t want to go to bed” may mean “I am afraid of being alone in my bed.”

2. “I hate you” may mean “I need you to help me feel safe,” or “I need a way out of this classroom.”

3. “I don’t know” may mean “I feel unsure of myself and don’t want to answer.”

4. “Don’t leave me” may mean “I don’t think I can do this on my own.”

5. “I am stupid” may mean “I am worried I might fail if I try.”

6. “Leave me alone” may mean “I will reject you before you reject me, even though I don’t really want to be apart from you.”

7. “I don’t want to go to Jesse’s birthday party” may mean “I am afraid of being in a new place,” or “I don’t think anyone wants to be my friend.”

8. “I don’t want to do my homework” may mean “I don’t think I can do it right.”

Of course, a child may simply say they are “scared,” but it is not typically that easy. The statements listed above are not exclusive to feelings of anxiety and don’t necessarily translate as listed but are instead examples.

The child’s statements and behaviors can also be due to feelings of sadness, disconnection or even challenges with learning. And although we may want to help our children get on track and change their behaviors so they can do better at school, with peers, and with following rules, we may not make much headway until we understand what is going on underneath all of the behaviors and words.

There is a common saying in the field of psychology that one’s “behavior is the tip of the iceberg,” meaning that there is so much hidden far below this behavior that we cannot easily see. We need to dive deep.

As a parent, it can be helpful to take a deep breath with your child and see the world through their eyes to see if you can pick out what might be triggering them or what might be a barrier for them. Some children are responsive when we ask them questions about what might be bothering them or what is it they “don’t like,” but it will not always be so simple.

It is important to honor that our children are struggling by acknowledging the challenge. Then we can offer them our calm presence and partnership in working through the hurt, the worry or the negative thoughts. They will likely be reassured by our presence and willingness to support them.

If parents continue to struggle with pinpointing or addressing the issue, or if the problems for the child persist/worsen, then it can be helpful to reach out to a therapist sooner rather than later. There are many factors to consider before rushing to address the behavior, and it is important to seek out a professional that specializes in working with children within your child’s age group.

Watching our children struggle can be hard. We might take it personally and feel that we did something wrong, but it is important to note that we do not cause every situation, feeling, or behavior that comes up for our children. But when a challenge arises, we can be a part of the solution by providing them with our reassuring presence.

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