8 phrases kids say that are code for ‘I’m anxious’

Children with anxiety may make statements that are code for something else.

child anxiety

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.

Building social-emotional skills and providing kids with the language they need to expresses themselves is no small task. One of our favorite tools for doing so? Slumberkins. Check out our top picks below!

Slumberkins sloth snuggler

Slumberkins sloth snuggler

Slumberkins is an oh-so-soft plush creature that comes with a book and mantra card to help kids calm fears and anxieties by naming their feelings. We like to think of them as loving tools that help build resilient, confident and caring humans. Slumber Sloth's Story uses progressive muscle relaxation techniques to guide children through a soothing routine, helping them calm their body and mind after a busy day.


Slumberkins alpaca snuggler

Slumberkins alpaca snuggler

Who isn't stressed these days? Along with his book and mantra card, Alpaca is perfect for times of stress or heightened anxiety, giving your child a friend who can help carry the weight of the worries, big and small.


Slumberkins hammerhead snuggler

Slumberkins hammerhead snuggler

Hammerhead is perfect for helping children navigate conflict resolution while learning the valuable life skills of communication and emotional regulation. When big emotions get the best of them, Hammerhead can show them how to calm down and make it right.


We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

This is how we’re defining success this school year

Hint: It's not related to grades.

In the ever-moving lives of parents and children, opportunities to slow down and reflect on priorities can be hard to come by. But a new school year scheduled to begin in the midst of a global pandemic offers the chance to reflect on how we should all think about measures of success. For both parents and kids, that may mean putting a fresh emphasis on optimism, creativity and curiosity.

Throughout recent decades, "school success" became entangled with "academic achievement," with cases of anxiety among school children dramatically increasing in the past few generations. Then, almost overnight, the American school system was turned on its head in the spring of 2020. As we look ahead to a new school year that will look like no year past, more is being asked of teachers, students and parents, such as acclimating to distance learning, collaborating with peers from afar and aiming to maintain consistency with schooling amidst general instability due to COVID.

Despite the inherent challenges, there is also an overdue opportunity to redefine success during the school year by finding fresh ways to keep students and their parents involved in the learning process.

"I always encourage my son to try at least one difficult thing every school year," says Arushi Garg, parenting blogger and mom of a 4-year-old. "This challenges him but also allows me to remind him to be optimistic! Lots of things in life are hard, and it's important we learn to be positive during difficult times. Fostering a sense of optimism allows kids to push beyond what they thought possible, like biking without training wheels or reading above their grade level."

Here are a few mantras to keep in mind this school year:

Quality learning matters more than quantifying learning

After focusing on standardized measures of academic success for so long, the learning environment this next school year may involve more independent, remote learning. Some parents are considering this an exciting opportunity for their children to assume a bigger role in what they are learning—and parents are also getting on board by supporting their children's education with engaging, positive learning materials like Highlights Magazine.

As a working mom, Garg also appreciates that Highlights Magazine can help engage her son while she's also working. She says, "He sits next to me and solves puzzles in the magazine or practices his writing from the workbook."

Keep an open mind as "school" looks different

Whether children are of preschool age or in the midst of high school, "going to school" is bound to look different this year. Naturally, this may require some adjustment as kids become accustomed to new guidelines. Although many parents may wish to shelter our kids from challenges, others believe optimism can be fostered through adversity when everyone is committed to adapting to new experiences.

"Honestly, I am yet to figure out when I will be comfortable sending [my son] back [to school]," says Garg. In the meantime, she's helping her son remain connected with friends who also read Highlights Magazine by encouraging the kids to talk about what they are learning on video calls.

Follow children's cues about what interests them

For Garg, her biggest hope for this school year is that her son will create "success" for himself by embracing new learning possibilities with positivity.

"Encouraging my son to try new things has given him a chance to prove that he can do anything," she says. "He takes his previous success as an example now and feels he can fail multiple times before he succeeds."

There's no denying that this school year will be far from the norm. But, perhaps, we can create a new, better way of defining our children's success in school because of it.

This article was sponsored by Highlights. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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