The beauty of being a kid is not having a care in the world—yet for some, worry, fear, and anxiety is a reality and something that can seriously take a toll on the joy of childhood. What’s even more alarming is that many parents are completely unaware that their kids are even feeling this way. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2010 Stress in America survey, one in five children have significant worry yet only 8 percent of parents would rate their children’s stress levels high or an 8, 9, or 10 on a 1 to 10 scale.

So how do you know if your child’s worries are cause for concern? Read on to find out when anxiety is normal, when it’s something more, and how to get help.

Most kids worry
The good news is that most kids will experience worry, fear or anxiety at some point. Your kid may have repetitive, exaggerated thoughts like what if I fail math? Or what if no one likes me? They may fear that someone will hurt them or their family. It’s also common for kids to be worried at bedtime, at school or in social settings. “A lot of this is normal,” according to Dr. Erica Saxe Ross, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Tool Kits for Kids, who said that a small amount of worry can actually help prepare kids to handle tough situations later on in life.  

Recognize the signs
Sometimes anxiety can become overwhelming for a child, or even be a sign of an anxiety disorder, which affects one in eight children, the Anxiety Disorders Association of America estimates. Your child may be nervous at school or refuse to go all together, be afraid to go to sleepovers or birthday parties, have excessive worry or irrational fears and may complain of stomachaches, headaches or simply not feeling well. You might also notice that your child says negative things like I’m no good, I hate myself, or I can’t do this.

If you’re concerned that your child’s worry is excessive, it’s important to recognize how often he experiences anxiety, how much distress it causes, and if it interferes with his everyday activities. “The critical thing is not that kids worry; it’s the combination that they worry and it impairs their functioning,” said Dr. Edward Christophersen, a clinical child psychologist at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Missouri.

How to get help
Exposure with response prevention, is an effective technique for overcoming anxiety, and one you may be able to do with your child, Dr. Christophersen said.  If your child is scared of dogs, for example, you might start out by showing them pictures of dogs, then visiting a dog shelter, then going to the park where dogs are, and finally, petting a dog.  The important thing is to take small steps and gradually expose your child to the fear.

“When a kid is anxious or worried, it’s because the child is not thinking accurately,” says Saxe Ross. If you can help your child identify what is causing him to feel anxious, you might be able to help him through his anxiety. Yet if you’re concerned that it’s seriously impacting his functioning, it’s best seek the help of a mental health professional, preferably one who is trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). A CBT therapist can help your child identify the feelings and irrational thoughts and then teach him or her to change his thought patterns and behaviors.  

Check out the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, who can help you locate a therapist.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, health, and women's issues and a mom. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com

Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.