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Clinical Anxiety in Children: What Does It Look Like?

All kids get scared or nervous from time to time, but clinical anxiety in children is more extreme than the average bout of uneasiness. But what does it look like? Which kids are most likely to have it?

Let’s talk about it.

What does anxiety look like in kids?

1. Having fears that don’t make sense [considering their past]

Maybe a child is afraid of tornadoes, although they’ve never been through one before. Maybe they’re terrified of having their bedroom door shut, even though they’ve never been locked in a room. Maybe it’s a continual expression of something they’re nervous about that really shouldn’t be on their mind at all.

Many children with anxiety become overly emotional if they can’t reach perfection in a certain area. For example, coloring outside the lines, spilling a drink, or not being able to get a puzzle to fit together exactly right.

They might feel overwhelmed when their paper gets wrinkled or when their shoes get muddy. The list goes on.

2. Extreme level of fears

Some of these kids literally can’t sleep in a bed without their parents. Some of them cry for hours on end at daycare every day, even though they’ve gone to the same place every day since they were born. Some of them get so worked up about what they’re afraid of that they have panic attacks.

It’s not just being afraid of a lot of things, but it’s also being TOO afraid of a lot of things, and expressing those fears frequently.

3. Expressing concern over things beyond their age

Kids with anxiety often express concern over things that they shouldn’t even notice. Things their parents might need to be concerned about, but certainly not them.

This could be concern over financial problems in their family, concern about wars breaking out around the war, fear of political changes or events, or concerns about family members dying.

They might be afraid of their house catching on fire, their car breaking down, or getting into a car wreck.

Really, anything that shouldn’t be on a child’s radar, especially so often that they feel the need to talk about it.

4. Somatization

Somatization is the appearance of physical pains or ailments that have no medical cause. For example, many children with anxiety experience frequent stomachaches or headaches.

Have you ever gone through a situation that made you really upset or nervous, and, consequently, ended up with diarrhea?

These kids experience that on a near-daily basis. They also experience fatigue more heavily than other kids, but will have a harder time remedying it because they’ll struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Who is most likely to have it?

1. Children who’ve experienced trauma

This probably goes without saying, but kids who have experienced trauma are significantly more likely to develop anxiety. They often present with recurring nightmares, PTSD-like symptoms, night sweats, aggression, physical outbursts, and many other signs of trauma.

Regardless of what the trauma is, anything they’ve gone through that made them feel very scared is likely to cause lasting anxiety in children.

2. Children who are gifted

This might surprise a lot of people.

Children who are “gifted” are far more likely to develop anxiety throughout the course of their lives. They have naturally higher rates of empathy, intuition, and perception, which means they feel more deeply than others do.

They’re often the types that “hurt when others hurt,” though they can come off as cold and calculated on the outside. Some gifted children don’t even know why they feel so much distress at a certain point in time, not realizing that their anxiety is actually based around something another person is going through.

They internalize everything.

3. Children who have been raised by parents with anxiety, particularly, parents who have let their anxiety run free in front of their children

It’s a scientific fact that people who have biological parents with mental health issues are exponentially more likely to have mental health issues themselves. However, the likelihood of that increases even further when the parent(s) do not manage their symptoms on a daily basis.

For example, a child might naturally have a chemical makeup that predisposes them to having anxiety, but if they’ve also grown up with a mother/father who spends all day talking about the things they’re afraid of, that child is much more likely to show anxiety symptoms early.

Kids with emotionally unhealthy parents, particularly those who have anxiety themselves, run a very high risk of having the disorder, too.

4. Children who have experienced or are currently experiencing poverty.

If you’ve never heard the statistics on how poverty correlates to anxiety, give it a quick search. Anxiety doesn’t only affect adults in poverty. It also affects the children living in those families.

First, their parents are more likely to be stressed, which trickles down to them. When mom and dad are stressed, they’re more likely to yell, be impatient, and teach poor examples of how to handle emotions.

They’re also more likely to work long hours, which means kids are alone or with babysitters for longer hours.

Kids also hear what their parents are talking about. They hear the money conversations.

And if they don’t, they probably still understand the difference between them and some of their wealthier peers, who seem to have the world at their fingertips.

Living at a low income with kids is not inherently a bad thing (there can be major benefits to it, as long as basic needs are being met), but in most cases, kids living under the federal poverty line have higher levels of anxiety.

5. Girls

Did you know that girls are TWICE AS LIKELY as boys to develop anxiety throughout the course of their lifetime?

The statistic during childhood is less than that, but girls are still more likely than boys to have it. Part of it is genetic (they have different chemical makeups in their brains), but a huge portion of it is societal.

In America, specifically, girls are judged more harshly, scrutinized more thoroughly, and expected to perform at higher academic levels.

When you add those pressures to their higher genetic likelihood, girls stand against much higher odds than boys.

What have you guys experienced? Do any of your kids have anxiety? Did you have it as a child?

Share your experience with us in the comments section below.

Clinical Anxiety in Children: What Does It Look Like?



APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2018). Clinical Anxiety in Children: What Does It Look Like?. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 16, 2019, from


Last updated: 30 Apr 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2018
Published on All rights reserved.