Your son gets nervous before his doctor’s appointment. Your daughter worries the night before an exam. Do they have anxiety or are these typical worries? How can you tell the difference?
Parents often ask me that question in my practice. What is the difference between worries and anxiety? Not much. They feel the same. They look the same. The difference is in the frequency and duration of the worry.
So when should parents worry about the worries? Here are 3 ways to help differentiate worries from possible anxiety. When in doubt always seek out the advice and guidance of a child therapist.
THEY HAVE MANY WORRIES
It is normal for children to worry about various things throughout their life. Worrying is a natural, normal feeling that we all have once in a while. So, when your children are up all night worrying about an exam or they are getting white knuckles at the doctor’s office – that is not an indication that they necessarily have anxiety.
Anxious children will not have isolated worries. They will be consumed with worries. Even if they have one worry – for instance the fear of bugs – that worry will encompass many smaller worries. They might be scared of bees. Worried about spiders. Consumed with the idea of bugs in their bed.
Most likely a worry:
Johnny was stung by a bee when he was 4. Ever since then whenever he sees a bee he gets frightened and runs to his mom.
Most likely anxiety:
Sarah has always been a nervous child. Out of the blue she started to become deathly afraid of bugs. She makes her mom check her bed at night. She refuses to go outside and play – worried something will bite or sting her. She wears shoes in the house because she’s afraid she might step on a spider.
THEY WORRY ABOUT THINGS THAT AREN’T GOING TO HAPPEN
Another way to differentiate common worries from anxiety is the context of the worry. If a child is going to do a presentation the next day and she is feeling nervous about going to school – that makes sense.
If a healthy boy is having a hard time going to sleep each night because he is worried about dying – that doesn’t make sense.
Kids with anxiety will worry about the typical stuff, but they will also worry about life’s “What if’s.” They create scenarios in their heads that have no basis in reality.
When trying to assess if kids are having typical worries or anxiety – look at the theme of their worries. Do they spend much of their time worrying about things that are unrealistic or out of context for the situation? Are most of their worries “what ifs?” Are their worries misaligned with their actual life experiences? Such as worrying about a car accident – even though they have never been in one. Or worrying about throwing up in front of people – even though that has never happened.
Most likely a worry:
John worries about being in a car accident. His family was in an accident last year and he worries it can happen again.
Most likely anxiety:
Sarah has never been in a car accident and she doesn’t know anyone who has either. She is consumed with worry that they might crash one day. She gets panicky when she is riding in a car and she will watch her mom closely as she drives.
WHEN THEY WORRY, THEY FEEL SICK
When kids get sick from worrying – that is a sign that you might be entering the world of anxiety. Common worries do not typically make kids sick to their stomach. Anxiety can wreak havoc on the body. Some physical symptoms of anxiety include a racing heart, nausea, vomiting and headaches.
If children are having frequent stomach aches when they are worried, that may be an indication that they are suffering from anxiety.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
It is helpful to learn the difference between worries and anxiety. When kids are having common worries – you can address the worry and typically move on. When kids are having anxiety – addressing the worry will not suffice. Anxious kids will need to learn lifelong coping mechanisms to beat their anxiety.
Still not sure if your child is showing signs of anxiety? Take 12 minutes out of your day and check out this quick parenting video. Click here to get started.