Because children are less likely to be able to identify and verbalize feelings of worry and anxiety, they are more likely to show anxiety through their behaviors. Keep in mind that the older your child, the more likely he will be able to talk about his internal states.
Children act out feelings as a normal expression of their development, which can sometimes be frustrating. As a result, parents often mistake a child's behavioral troubles for stubbornness, laziness, or willfulness. In fact, the overall message a child with anxiety communicates through behavior is a state of hopelessness.
A meltdown can be best described as a “total emotional breakdown.” Your child may sob, wail, refuse to move or respond, or talk nonstop about an event he found upsetting. He may seem inconsolable, or unable to “rally” for the next demand, like homework, an outing, or dinnertime. Adolescents may “freak out,” lamenting about issues that may seem trivial or even insensible from the adult point of view.
It is typical for parents bringing a child with anxiety to therapy to identify behavioral troubles as their main reason for seeking therapy. A good therapist will look beyond these clues for an underlying emotional issue that causes disruptions in behavior, and then help you and your child develop a plan to manage both the problem behaviors and the emotions driving them.
Tears in response to disappointments, loss, or injury to the physical or emotional self are normal and expected in children (and adults, too!) If your child is tearful for no apparent reason, cannot seem to stop crying in response to an upset, or seems to “cry at the drop of a hat,” anxiety could be the cause.
Many children with anxiety have difficulty switching gears between activities. This may occur at school between subjects, at particular times during the day, such as between playtime and dinner, or when a new set of skills or attention is required. A child may dawdle or show one of the behaviors discussed earlier when he is having trouble with a transition.
Opposition is the refusal to meet requests, obligations, or deadlines. Your child may refuse to do her chores, get ready for bed, or participate in family activities. Children who are afraid they cannot do something well may express their fear by becoming oppositional.
Procrastination is a specific form of avoidance, with an “I'll do it later” attitude. Unfortunately, procrastination actually increases anxiety by delaying the inevitable need to confront the proverbial dragon. When procrastination becomes a pattern, it may indicate underlying issues with anxiety.
Avoidance is one of the hallmarks of anxiety in both adults and children. Because your child wants to shy away from what is uncomfortable, she may resist doing things that take her out of her comfort zone. Anxious children may avoid social situations or occasions in which they fear they will be called upon to use skills they are certain they do not possess, such as a class presentation. To avoid feeling inadequate, your child may procrastinate or even shut down entirely.
Parents may respond by either pushing or coddling or by avoiding the issue themselves. Research shows that parents of children with anxiety tend to do tasks for children or respond in a way that does not increase and encourage autonomy. This increases avoidance of independence in the future because the child is blocked from experiencing an internal sense of competence or mastery.