Dealing with big emotions when you’re a kid is difficult. Trying to articulate these feelings to a grown-up, so they can help you, is nearly impossible. What you’re often left with, as the parent, is a feeling of frustration as you try to “fix” the problem your child is complaining about without understanding the underlying meaning. Fortunately, there are a few surprising things kids say that actually reveal their underlying anxiety.
1. “My stomach hurts.”
There are times when a stomachache is just a stomachache. However, if your child has persistent stomachaches – especially before a big test, before school, before a big game or event, or even during any of these activities, it could be a sign that they are experiencing anxiety.
When you are anxious, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. Your pupils dilate, your muscles begin burning glycogen stores as they prepare for battle or a long, fast run, and your digestive system slows down. A slower digestive process often yields pain, gas, constipation or diarrhea, nausea, or even vomiting.
So, how do you tell if your child’s stomachache is anxiety or something else? The first step is visiting a family doctor. If the stomach pains are indeed anxiety related, there are many coping skills you can teach your child to transform their anxiety into a positive catalyst for change. You can begin by teaching them to take slow, deep breaths – this floods the brain with oxygen to take the body back into rest and digest mode.
2. “I don’t want to ____”
Avoidance is a powerful tool we all use to keep us from facing our fears. Unfortunately, when you’re a kid, the things you want to avoid (like school or being away from a parent) are the very things you have to do on a regular basis. If your child is telling you they don’t want to do something they usually love to do, chances are something has changed about the activity or relationship that they don’t know how to communicate.
Unfortunately, while avoidance provides a short-term, feel good effect, it eventually reinforces the anxiety. To break the cycle of avoidance, create gradual or mini-goals for your kids to accomplish. Each mini-goal may cause a little discomfort, but not enough to avoid engaging in the process. Eventually, the mini-goals lead to the big goal. This is a technique we call laddering in the GoZen! programs.
3. “Roaaaaaar!!!!!” Anger, rage & hostility (oh my!)
Remember the “fight or flight” response? Sometimes “fight” isn’t just a figurative term. In most cases, the anger kids show on the outside are rooted in the conflicts or anxiety-inducing circumstances kids experience. How often do you pick a fight with your spouse or partner because you’re upset about something else? When you start looking at your child’s anger as anxiety, you begin to treat it differently. They still need to understand the limits, but feeling shame over their behavior can drive anxiety even further.
If your young child seems angry or hostile for no reason, stop what you are doing and give them your full and undivided attention. Sit next to them, pull them into your lap or give them a hug and remind them they are safe. Anger is a secondary emotion – try your best to find the primary emotion underneath the anger. If your older child or teen child lashes out, suppress your instinct to lash out in return. Instead, remind them that you are on the same team, that together you will figure out what is bothering them, and that you will help them fix whatever needs to be fixed.
4. Tears, tears everywhere.
Too often tears and anxiety go hand in hand, but this is not always a bad thing. Research has shown that crying can be a good thing for anxious kids if they are placed in the right environment. In fact, one-third of all crying episodes have been shown to have positive changes in mood afterward if the person is properly supported. The trick? Providing that positive environment when your child does cry while teaching them coping skills to avoid crying in embarrassing situations.
When your child cries for what you feel is no reason, let them. Once they begin to settle, explain that anxiety and tears often go together. Then talk about what it is they are anxious about and see if you can develop a strategy to tackle it together. Gaining additional insight after the amygdala has had its say can help them feel more in control of the situation.
5. “What if…?”
You have to have the patience of a Saint to answer the endless string of, “What if’s…” that come from the mouth of an anxious child. But “What if’s” are your child’s way of asserting control over a situation where they feel they have very little control. If they can plan for every possible worst case scenario, they won’t be caught unawares.
Turn their “What if’s” into “So what’s.” For example, if your child says, “What if no one else is wearing pajamas for pajama day at school?” Respond with, “So what if you’re the only one in pajamas? What will you do then?” This subtle shift allows your child’s pre-frontal cortex to start engaging in rational, reasonable thought. If that doesn’t work, help your child come up with a worst-case scenario that is so outrageous it makes you both laugh. The endorphin rush from laughter can disrupt the chemical signals in the brain just enough to reduce anxiety.
Bonus insight: There’s some research that suggests that an inability to stop worried thinking is linked to low levels of a neurochemical called GABA. Best way to boost your child’s GABA production? Regular exercise!
6. You hear, “I can’t sleep” as your child is yawning.
The link between anxiety and sleep disorders is well established. Stress can make it impossible to fall asleep, difficult to stay asleep and hard to wake up in the morning. We all know that an anxious night’s sleep can leave your child yawning. But there is new evidence that suggests that yawning even when your child is not tired can be a symptom of anxiety. Yawning is the body’s way of taking in more oxygen to feed an overly active brain and help calm the body’s stress response. If your child can’t stop yawning after a full night’s sleep, they may be experiencing anxiety.
7. “I can’t!”
Anxiety and perfectionism are kissing cousins. If your child tends to give up easily, even before they begin to try something new, it is likely they are experiencing anxiety rather than a lack of ability. However, the ability to try and fail is key to developing a growth mindset that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
First, pay attention to how you view your own failures and setbacks. Are you shaken when you don’t do something well the first time? Do you talk about your failures and what you learned from them?
Then, try shrinking the task into more manageable steps that foster a sense of success. Once your child experiences a few “wins” after they are overwhelmed by the prospect of failure, they can begin to isolate the task that needs work. Encourage them to try and try again, recognizing their incremental successes, and help them see that their failures are meant to help them learn.
As nice as it would be to have our kids come to us and explain that they are feeling anxious and then proceed to spill their guts about its cause, that skill only comes with time and age. In the meantime, knowing these phrases can help you play detective the next time they come from your child.