“Aren’t those some girls from your class?” asked the father, “You should go over there and say hello.”
His seven year old daughter shook her head and said, “I can’t. I don’t know what to say. I am too shy anyway.”
The father was not sure what to do next. He just didn’t understand why his daughter was so reluctant to even say hello to her classmates. His son never seemed to have this issue.
The father’s bewilderment regarding his daughter’s behavior is a normal reaction that many parents have in similar situations. In this case, the daughter is experiencing anxiety. Yet, she did not come out and say it was anxiety. Rather, his daughter represented the anxiety as shyness.
There are all sorts of ways to refer to anxiety that can hide or obscure a child’s underlying issue. Children, parents and other adults may use words to describe a child’s behavior like afraid, worried, apprehensive, or self-conscious. These words can call attention to how a child is struggling but it can distract from the fundamental factor of anxiety.
Anxiety can stay hidden for a long time before it is properly identified. In many cases, a child can appear basically happy and enjoying life. However, outward appearances can be deceptive as anxiety is considered an internalizing issue. This means the turmoil and stress is occurring within the child and may not be outwardly expressed where adults would notice it.
As anxiety becomes more severe, worrying can dominate a child’s thoughts causing her functioning to suffer in various aspects of her life. An example is when homework that should take only 30 minutes to complete actually takes two hours because the child has to repeatedly erase answers because they are not perfectly aligned on the paper.
Eventually signs of anxiety begin to show through a variety of behaviors that can easily escape adults’ notice. This is due to many of the behaviors looking like other disorders. For example, a child may have difficulties sleeping or complaining about headaches or stomachaches. She might have explosive outbursts or be fidgety and have trouble focusing. A child could also try to avoid others but be clingy around her parents.
Parents and other caregivers need to be aware of these hidden signs of anxiety and take action when they are seen. Anxiety is one of the most commonly occurring psychological disorders yet few children get appropriate treatment. This has the unfortunate consequence of setting up a child for a lifetime of struggling with the issue.
Children with untreated anxiety disorders are more likely to have a host of poor outcomes. This can include avoiding the source of anxiety such as refusing to interact with other children due to a fear of being embarrassed. Other outcomes of untreated anxiety include lower self-esteem, poor academic achievement, and depression.
The good news is that anxiety is a very treatable disorder. Through the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy, children can learn effective ways to cope with their anxiety which makes it more manageable. Be on the lookout for hidden signs of anxiety in children and take action when you see them.
This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Friday on June 3, 2016