Is it Anxiety or a Tummy Ache?

“Mommy, my tummy hurts!”

These are words almost every parent is guaranteed to hear from their child. Sometimes our kids caught a bug at school, ate something that upset their stomach, or maybe they drank too much pool water… But what if it’s none of those things, and we suspect their discomfort is something else?

What Does Anxiety in Kids Look Like?

Anxiety in kids can present in similar ways as adults, but kids don’t usually have the language to describe what is happening to them. According to the CDC anxiety may present in children as anger, irritability, fatigue, trouble sleeping, head aches, and stomach aches. We might not see these symptoms as feelings of anxiety and rationalize them as grumpy kids, tired kids, “hangry” kids, or kids throwing a tantrum. When you’re trying to get out the door and your child starts yelling they don’t want to go, or it’s the first day of school and they’re suddenly sick in bed with a stomach ache. These moments might be a good time to check in with your child and help them process some fear or anxiety they may be experiencing. Children may also experience feelings of panic which may be a sudden feeling of intense fear that will cause our child to sweat, feel dizzy, have an increased heart rate, and some children experiencing panic may have trouble breathing. If your child has ever experienced any of these symptoms you might consult with your child’s doctor to consider scheduling an assessment with a professional counselor.

What’s Giving My Kid Anxiety???

I’ve heard many parents, in session and in my day to day life, ask me, “What do kids have to be anxious about?” Although this question was more common Pre-Covid, it is still a question that many adults wonder about kids. Every child is built different and come with a different set of tools, whether they are resiliency factors, or environmental factors (like a safe and secure home life). Kids can be anxious about being away from their parents, being in a new environment such as starting at a new school, kids might worry about the future and what’s going to happen. Many kids with siblings will worry about their bother or sister, and some older kids experience increased anxiety as they gain more awareness about the world around them. Kids worries can take up a really BIG place in their life but don’t always require big solutions.

What Can Parents Do?

When kids express their worries or fears with their parents they are often reaching out for reassurance. As helpful parents, we often want to fix the anxiety causing problem and offer solutions, “Try this” or “Maybe if you do this it will help”. But often this can cause our child to shut down or spiral even further into their anxiety. One of the most powerful tools a parent can use is the power of validation. Sometimes kids just need to be seen, need to be heard, and need to see that their parent is right there with them. This might sound like…

“I can see this is really bothering you, I’m here for you”.
“I know that you’re nervous about your first day of school, it can be scary to start somewhere new”.
“You seem angry, when you’re ready to talk I’m here to listen”.

It’s important for parents to avoid shutting kids down. It can be difficult for children to open up about their feelings, to be vulnerable, and to ask for help. These are not just moments to help your child feel loved and supported, but also moments to teach our children how to cope with these feelings… left uncheck, these feelings can grow into maladaptive coping skills that can make life as adult more challenging.

My Top 5 Must Dos for Parents:

  1. Validate your Childs feelings (NEVER say “Stop Crying”)!
  2. Acknowledge that whatever they’re feeling is important to you, even if you think their worry is silly or small. To your child this worry may be taking up a big space in their life. Use your relationship to heal their anxiety.
  3. Try asking your child if the expression of their feelings is helpful or hurtful. We want to encourage our children to recognize their own behavior and identify what helps them to move through anxiety.
  4. Check in with yourself. Acknowledge any stress or anxiety you may be feeling. Sometimes our children can trigger us, and we can make a more informed decision when we are of our own stuff getting in the way. Sometimes this awareness can be a great tool to help us connect to our child by sharing an age appropriate disclosure of our own feelings. “I get nervous in new places too”.
  5. Seek help and support if your child’s daily tasks (like eating, sleeping, playing, school) are negatively impacted by their anxiety. It’s okay to seek a professional support, and your child deserves to have the best treatment for things they aren’t prepared to cope with.

*This is not therapeutic advice, and if you have any questions or concerns you should contact your child’s doctor or a professional mental health counselor.

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