Could my child have anxiety?  This is a question many parents of sassy, spirited, and strong-willed children may have.

In today’s episode we learn what anxiety is, how it effects your child’s behavior, and some exercises for calming the anxious child (or anxious adult).

I was surprised to learn that much of my child’s behavior stems from his anxieties and I am excited to start using the new tools Mike Fitch, CMHC teaches.


Mike Fitch, CMHC

Is it common for a strong-willed child to have anxiety?

Yes! It is not uncommon for a strong-willed child to have anxiety.  In fact, for some strong-willed children anxiety is the ROOT of their behavior.  This is not the case for all kids. But many parents don’t know that anxiety (and depression) can manifest in a child as anger or defiance.

What is anxiety?

True anxiety is when a person’s brain “misfires”.  You have different portions of your brain. You are have one portion of your brain that is responsible for thinking and being rational.  You have another part of your brain that is responsible for keeping you alive. That part of that brain triggers the “fight or flight” response that people hear about so often.

In a person with anxiety, the “fight or flight” part of the brain is overactive and when a stimulus enters the brain it travels to the fight or flight part of the brain rather than the rational part of the brain.  Hence, the “misfire”.

Here’s an example of what this looks like in an everyday scenario:

A “typical” child, one with normal brain functioning may be scared to go to a new school, but can rationally think about the positive things that could happen.  They can talk themselves into going.

The child with anxiety cannot rationally talk themselves into going.  Rather, the brain will trigger their “fight or flight” response. That child will either shut down and cry OR will be defiant and fight you.  It’s important to understand that the child isn’t doing this to be mean, in their mind they’re doing it to survive!

What are some signs that my child has anxiety?

    • Is there something that is consistently an issue for them?
      • i.e. Are they scared to go anywhere with a dog?
    • excessive worry most days of the week, for weeks on end
    • trouble sleeping at night or sleepiness during the day
    • restlessness or fatigue during waking hours
    • trouble concentrating
    • irritability
    • Defiance
  • Excessive crying about particular worries for weeks on end

How do I know if I just have a strong-willed child or if I have a child with anxiety?

You’re going to have to start tracking behavior.  Team up with another adult that is around your child a lot and start looking for patterns in their behavior.  Is there something that consistently triggers misbehavior, tantrums, crying or worry? Is it consistent in multiple environments?  Is it consistently affecting my child’s quality of life?

If you don’t find a pattern or if the behavior is different in different environments, chances are you have a strong-willed child, not a child with anxiety.  If there are a lot of consistencies, you can pinpoint triggers, and the triggers are affecting your child’s ability to function on a daily basis…please consider a consultation with a mental health professional.  They will be able to do further assessment to help diagnose your child. All of your hard work tracking information will be very helpful to whomever helps diagnose your child. problem solve.

I’ve chosen to take my child to a mental health specialist, what should I expect?

I tell parents to plan on a handful of visits at least.  It takes some time for kids to get comfortable with me. During the first appointment, I just listen to what’s going on and ask a few questions.  During the second visit, I try to establish a good relationship with the child, but they’re still shy. By the third appointment, even the kids with anxiety feel at home with me.

For assessment, I ask a lot of questions and have everyone fill out some short surveys.  I do have some more in depth surveys with three to four hundred questions, but I save those for times I really need them.  More commonly, I give a questionnaire that is one sheet front and back. The questions help me get a picture of what’s really going on.  It’s not uncommon for a health professional to ask that multiple caregivers take the assessment so i can see what is going on in different environments.

Finally, if I’ve determined that the child has a true anxiety, I start to teach tools to both the parents and the child.  Anxiety is something that kids can learn how to manage. The brain can be rewired to fire properly. It takes some work, but we can get really good results.

What tools would you teach kids who struggle with anxiety?

    1. Deep Breathing- One of the foundation tools is good breathing technique.  You can listen to the breathing coaching I give kids here.  People will get a little irritated that I teach them how to breathe first.  They wonder why I teach something so simple. So let me explain why.

      When a person is in “fight or flight” mode, their breathing gets more rapid and their heart rate increases.  The body does this to assist a person while they are running away. If you can slow down the breathing to a slow and steady pace it tells the brain that there is not an emergency, that everything is fine.  Slow breathing tells the brain not to freak out.

      So if I can teach a child to recognize what anxiety feels like and have them start to take slow, deep breaths when they feel anxiety coming on, they can calm their brain and feel better.
    1. Distraction-When a person is feeling anxious, their brain is usually overly-focused on the thing that is making them scared.  Luckily, the brain can’t focus on too many things at once. If someone can learn to think about something else when they are feeling anxious, it can help calm them down.  

      I like to tell my clients to have five things they love to do or think about ready for anytime they feel anxious.  Some ideas or funny jokes, favorite YouTube videos, happy memories, crafts, anything really. As long as it powerfully distracts the brain.

      We can retrain our brains to focus on those five things rather than on the things that make us anxious.
  1. Desensitization- With some kinds of anxiety, we use desensitization to help calm fears.  Desensitization is when we gradually expose a person to something that they’re afraid of in increasing quantities.  We want them to see that their fears are not founded in reality.

    For example:

    A child that’s afraid of water may need little exposures over and over again to see that water can be safe when we’re smart.  We would gradually increase their exposure to the water until they were comfortable getting in.

    Don’t try to do this one your own.  Leave it to the professionals.

Final thoughts

Anxiety is a common disorder that I see a lot.  Luckily, it’s not something that needs to be debilitating for life.  We have a lot of great tools available to help kids overcome anxiety.

If you think think that your child has anxiety, see a professional for an assessment.  The peace of mind is worth it. If you go in and your child doesn’t have anxiety, the professional may be able to help you identify what IS going on and get you the help that you are looking for.

It would be better to know than to not go in and let your child suffer needlessly.  I have adult clients that are just barely getting diagnosed with anxiety and they wish they would have known when they were much younger.

Also, be sure to check out this recording of breathing exercises.  It’s great for kids and adults alike!

Happy Parenting!

Books mentioned in this episode:

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