What are the Warning Signs of Anxiety in Children?

Oct 9, 2020

Do you wonder if some of your children’s behaviors are related to anxiety? Have you seen an increase in big emotions, worry, fear, or confusion? Is one of the unforeseen fallouts of 2020 that our kids are experiencing increased anxiety? If the phone calls to my office are an indicator, this is the new childhood epidemic of this year. This is the first of a two-part series on recognizing anxiety in children, and how best to help your child through their worries.

Updated – If you notice these signs in your children, here are some tips for dealing with a child’s anxiety.

listen on apple podcasts
listen on google podcasts

Podcast Transcript

Hi, I’m Dr. Brenna Hicks, The Kid Counselor. Thank you for being here! And I wanted to make you all aware – some of you have been following me and been a part of The Kid Counselor Family since 2016 when I launched Play Therapy Parenting, so you’ve been with me for four or five years and that was in the video era of my communication. But some of you have been with me back from 2006 when I used to print newsletters and hand them out, and I typed all of my blogged articles. And then some of you are really new and you have joined recently in the podcast era of The Kid Counselor Family and Play Therapy Parenting. So at whatever point you have become a part of our Family, I just wanted to say thank you. I wanted this video to let you know how much I appreciate you. And I am grateful for you. And I have been amazed and so encouraged by the number of you that are downloading my podcasts. I’m so happy to know that that is a medium that you all enjoy. And you are happy to get those podcasts and download those and be able to listen to those. So if you are downloading those, thank you! I’ve been blown away by the number of people that have been downloading my podcasts. And obviously the videos – the YouTube views on those. And Facebook – you know you all are able to get me on Facebook too. So however you find me, however you get my information, I very much appreciate you, and I just wanted to say thank you.

So here’s what’s on my heart today. I have been thinking through where people are right now in 2020 and I’m curious if you have ever noticed that your kids are having trouble sleeping recently. If you have ever struggled with them tending to be fearful or worry, ask you lots of ‘what if’ questions. If you have possibly heard them talk of phobias, things that they’re scared of, asking lots of questions about what could happen, what might happen, becoming more clingy. I wonder if you all have experienced those things with your kids. Maybe across the years or even just in 2020.

I ask because my phone is ringing off the hook right now, and I would say 75 to 80% of the calls that we’re getting are about children dealing with anxieties, and parents are overwhelmed and don’t know what to do. They can’t figure out how to help and the number of calls that I’ve been getting specifically for anxiety, it’s alarming to me. It’s disheartening to me, and I feel that it’s such a prominent issue, and it’s something that we need to be aware of, you know, as people who love kids in our lives. We need to be aware of what’s going on with our kids, and we need to be aware of how to help.

So here is what you can look for in this video. This is actually going to be a two part series. And in this video or in this podcast, however you’re receiving this information, I’m going to be sharing with you the warning signs of anxious behavior in kids. You may not even be aware of how often your children are exhibiting anxiety symptoms and how often they’re showing you that they are worried or fearful or anxious. So in this video today we will talk through the warning signs, things that you can look for. And then in the next video, we will talk about what to do about it. So two part series on anxiety in kids.

Here’s what’s interesting to me. In 2016, when I opened my current location and my current Center, I really didn’t have a lot of calls for anxiety. Specifically, I didn’t have people calling and saying, “My child is anxious. My child is fearful. My child is worried. My child is constantly asking me questions about this, that, and the other.” I didn’t have it. And back when I originally began in 2006, I would sometimes see anxious behavior in kids. But I would say eight or nine out of 10 kids that come to our center right now are dealing with anxiety in some way, sometimes completely crippling. Sometimes it’s just a constant undercurrent to their daily lives, and that is the current climate that we’re in.

This 2020 has been a really tough year, and kids have had their entire worlds turned upside down (as we all have) but we, at least as adults, are able to be rational and cognitive and think through what’s going on. We have perspective, we have world view, and we have decision making power. Kids have none of those things. So they’ve been thrust into this unknown, new, often scary and confusing dynamic, and it’s just shooting their anxieties through the roof.

So here are the signs. Here are the things that you can be aware of that and you can be looking for. This will be really helpful to recognize what’s going on because it’s so important for us as parents and caregivers and adults who love kids to be able to meet them where they are. So first and foremost, it’s helpful to recognize the root of what might be driving the questions, the comments, or the behaviors. So signs are ‘what if’ questions. That is a very consistent question for an anxiety based fear. So, “What if something bad happens? What if you never come home? What if someone dies? What if we get sick? What if we have to go to the hospital? What if I fall and get hurt? What if this breaks and I never could have another one?” What if questions put us in a state of perpetual unknown and perpetual fear, so that would be a huge warning.

Another sign: sleep disturbances. When children are not sleeping well, meaning they either are not falling asleep easily and quickly and consistently or they are waking up throughout the night and they are concerned about something. They are not sleeping soundly and restfully. Often a sign of a mind that is very nervous and anxious.

Another warning sign is complaining that they’re scared of everything. “I’m scared to do that. No, I can’t do that. It’s scary. No, I don’t I don’t wanna go in there. That’s too scary. No, that scares me. Oh, that was scary.” When children say things are scary, often we downplay that, and we’ll say, “Oh, that’s not scary. It’s not scary to go in a dark room. You just need to turn the light on.” But if they’re saying it’s scary, there’s fear there, and there’s anxiety there. So that would be another warning sign.

Another sign: Your child will not be left alone, will not let you out of their sight. Will not feel comfortable to go to a different part of the house alone. To go into a classroom alone, to go into an extra curricular activity alone. The clinginess, the neediness, always wanting to be with you. That is an attempt to reassure their fears so well. ‘I know if someone’s with me, it won’t be as scary.’ Or ‘I don’t feel as as frightened if someone’s right here with me.’

So those are all things that you could be looking for, those are cues that will help you understand. “Okay, my child is fearful. My child is anxious. My child is worried.” Now, that doesn’t have to be debilitating. It doesn’t have to be something that is ruining their function, but it’s just helpful to know that’s what’s going on.

And I wanted to share a couple of quick, normal parent reactions to those types of cues so that you can catch yourself. If you fall into that normal parent reaction category, I’d like to help you understand how we typically react and to avoid the common mistakes that parents will make. There’s only a few. The first is we dismiss what they say. So child says, “I don’t want to do that. That that’s too scary for me.” We say, “That’s not scary.” We just absolutely dismiss however they’re feeling, so we kind of just move on as if it’s not even worth having a conversation about because it’s so silly, we shouldn’t even waste time on it. Second parent reaction, common parent reaction, is to try to convince the child to feel or think something different. So “No, that’s not scary, because…” or “You don’t need to worry about that, because…” We will often try to move them in a different direction or think something differently. Or the third typical parent reaction is to just get really frustrated. You know, “You are fine. Why do you always need me to come with you? Why do you always tell me that it’s scary?” We can let the history of those fears and concerns that the child presents to us actually make us a little bit irritated: “Why can’t you just realize this isn’t a big deal?” So those are the cues to look for, those are the common pitfalls or mistakes that parents make in the way that they handle those cues.

And in the next video, we’re going to talk about what that means. As far as what you could do about it, because we have to be equipped with the skills and the tools and the knowledge of how to help our kids when they feel anxious. We need to know what’s the best approach if a child is expressing, either verbally or nonverbally, that they’re feeling scared or afraid or worried or any of those things. So be on the lookout for a lot of questions from kids. If they’re asking you lots of questions, it often means they’re concerned or worried or fearful. ‘Where are we going? When are we going? Why? How are we going to do that?’ And then the ‘what ifs’ will also come. So if your child is asking a question and there’s an undercurrent of fear, that’s a really helpful moment to recognize, “Okay, they have concern over this. Let me handle this appropriately and well to help them.”

So 2020 has been a heck of a year. It has been concerning. It’s been unknown. It’s been frustrating. It has turned a lot of things on its head. Our ‘new normal’ is not really feeling normal still, and there are still states – I know there are still states that are shut down. I know there are still states with people and kids that have not even been outside since March. Please be aware your kids need as much normalcy as possible, and I know in some places… We’re in Florida. We have been open, our child has been able to go out and play again. We saw the effects of what being in the house with no peer interaction, with no time to play, with no ability to just have normal, everyday things that he was used to. He wasn’t able to go play with his friends in the neighborhood, to go play baseball with his team, to go to practice, to go to lessons. I mean, everything about his world just stopped.

We care for my mother in law and she is not really in great health, so we were very, very careful. For eight weeks, we had no contact with the outside world and we saw the effects that it had on him. He just really was struggling. He had such a hard time with it. His attitude, his behavior, his mental space. He was just really, really struggling. And when Florida opened back up, he was able to go outside again, it made such a difference.

And I know some of you are not able to send your kids out to play right now. I know that some of you are still shut down and you’re still staying home and being safe. I know that. Please be aware of creating as much normalcy as possible. We have had a hard time as adults this year. Imagine how much harder it is for kids, when they don’t truly understand what’s going on in the world. The world is already unknown and scary for them, even before something like this happens. So this year has been tough on all of us, but especially on our kids. The anxiety levels are so high for our kids right now. Adults, too. But for kids, they need as much normalcy is possible.

And that may mean you have to tweak some of what you’re offering to them. Sometimes you can’t let them go play outside, but they could build a fort inside. It’s probably going to take some creativity on your part and some figuring out outside of the box what you could do to give them a little bit of a touch of what normal life was like before March. I just wanted to encourage you as much as possible, provide opportunities for them to have decompression time. Downtime, playtime time that’s just fun. Creative, imaginative, narrative play. Those are the antidotes to fear and anxiety until things start to settle a little bit more. Until things are a little bit returned back to the way we used to understand them to be, it’s going to take us being purposeful and intentional to create for our kids those anxiety free spaces.

If you’re watching a lot of news, if you’re watching a lot of TV, if you’re listening to radios that are talking about what’s going on in the world, be aware of the listening ears in your home. Be aware of giving them a break from those things. If you’re having adult conversations in front of them about what’s going on in the world, be aware they’re listening. Be aware that it could be ramping up their anxiety. We have to be very diligent and intentional about the way that we give them freedom to just be kids. They have kid problems and we have adult problems and they don’t need to carry the adult problems, too.

So those are the warning signs: questions, phobias, lack of sleep, struggles, wondering where you are, needing to be with you all the time. I hope that that’s helpful. I hope that if you see some of those things in your kids that you can now say, “Wow, I didn’t really know that they were as worried as they are. I want to make sure that I give them space to decompress and to not be so concerned about those things.”

So before I wrap up, I wanted to encourage you if you have not already done so, please go to thekidcounselor.com and subscribe to my newsletter. Then every time I put out a new podcast, a new video, anything with content for you, you’ll be notified of it. I’ll send you an email letting you know where to find it. And if you have questions, if you feel that your child is struggling with anxiety or you didn’t even realize it, and now you’re going, “Gosh, maybe maybe they’re more anxious than I thought.” If you have questions, if you have comments, please, wherever you’re seeing this: on Facebook or on the podcast or on the video. Whatever you’re doing to get this content, will you please comment so that I can respond? I’d love to give you some insight, give you some tips and, you know, help you navigate through this really anxious time in our world. And last but not least, my new book is available on Amazon. It’s only been out for about a month. It’s called Device Detox, and it is a way to help you get your kids to a healthy amount of screens without the tantrums and raise happy and healthy kids. So Device Detox. You can get it on Amazon. It’s an Amazon bestseller. I’m super excited to be able to say that. So if you’d like to get your copy, there’s an e book and there is a printed book available on Amazon. Until we see each other again soon, thank you. Bye.

Cochran, N., Nordling, W., & Cochran, J. (2010). Child-Centered Play Therapy (1st ed.). Wiley.
VanFleet, R., Sywulak, A. E., & Sniscak, C. C. (2010). Child-centered play therapy. Guilford Press.
Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play therapy: The art of the relationship (2nd ed.). Brunner-Routledge.
Bratton, S. C., Landreth, G. L., Kellam, T., & Blackard, S. R. (2006). Child parent relationship therapy (CPRT) treatment manual: A 10-session filial therapy model for training parents. Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Benedict, Helen. Themes in Play Therapy. Used with permission to Heartland Play Therapy Institute.

Subscribe to The Kid Counselor Family email to get a FREE “Birth Order” Workshop

Birth Order: How it Affects Your Child’s Personality

Subscribe to the email newsletter today and get INSTANT ACCESS to a video-recorded workshop I conducted on this topic.

You’ll learn:

  • The hidden influences of birth order on personality traits
  • How birth order impacts your child’s relationships and success
  • Practical strategies for leveraging birth order dynamics in parenting

Subscribe now and take the first step towards understanding and nurturing your child’s unique personality!

Get Brenna’s Latest Book

Device Detox: A Parent’s Guide To Reducing Usage, Preventing Tantrums, And Raising Happier Kids.

Device Detox Book

“Dr. Brenna Hicks does an excellent job of sketching the problem, but the book shines brightest when Dr. Hicks offers a suite of practical, evidence-based strategies for coping with screen overuse in children. A valuable book that deserves to be read by parents everywhere.”


New York Times bestselling author of IRRESISTIBLE and DRUNK TANK PINK