When It's a Phase, or Something Else: What to do if your child has anxiety

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Your daughter has a surprising overreaction to studying for a test. Your son insists he can’t play baseball this year — or ever. Your elementary school child hides behind you when you see a neighbor at the grocery store, and your preschooler dives under furniture at the doctor’s office when the nurse says “hello.”

Why is your kid so anxious?

Anxiety is a normal response. Most of us are familiar with the “fight or flight” response built into our self-preservation as humans. But sometimes, the brain get stuck in anxiety mode. We can experience mild anxiety to a full-blown panic attack. If unchecked, it may become an anxiety disorder that requires medical intervention.

Symptoms range from nail-biting, moodiness, nervousness or irrational fears, shyness, irritability and refusing to engage in normal activities — to headaches, insomnia, stomach pains, a lack of concentration or even outright combativeness. (Picture a screaming child slamming doors.)

Anxiety can be its own disorder, or go hand-in-hand with other childhood health concerns. such as autism or ADHD.

How do you know if it’s just a phase or something more serious?

Ask yourself: Do you see any of these six issues or behaviors in your child?

1: Generalized anxiety. This disorder exhibits the physical symptoms of anxiety, the desire to avoid normal activities, and obsessive worry about school, friends and family or other important factors. If your kid acts as if life is out of control or completely overwhelming, his anxiety may not be typical of what most kids experience.

2: Obsessive compulsive disorder. While we hear jokes about people being “OCD,” the actual disorder is difficult for the individual and those around her, especially when she is a child. Does your kid repeat actions over and over? Hoard items? Talk about the same thing repeatedly? These are all signs of OCD.

3: Intense fear of something irrational. While many of us are afraid of spiders, for instance, does he take his fear of bugs to a whole new level by making you check his room every night or melt down over a fly? People with phobias often go to extreme lengths to avoid what they fear.

4: Social anxiety. Does your child avoid social situations, even fun events like birthday parties or playing with other kids? Does he refuse to talk in front of others, or gets overly upset when asked to do so? While some kids are naturally shy, it's not a healthy fear if it keeps him from enjoying time with other kids in normal childhood settings.

5: Panic attacks. These sudden onsets of extreme anxiety can appear without obvious triggers. A child can experience heart-pounding, dizziness, difficulty breathing, numbness or even a tingling sensation, as well as strong, irrational thoughts that she cannot stop.

6: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Has your child suffered a traumatic event — a car accident or death of a loved one? Symptoms of PTSD include intense fear, nightmares, flashbacks, acting out the traumatic situation repeatedly (such as in play) or avoiding anything that reminds him of the situation. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, studies have shown that up to 15 percent of girls exposed to a trauma can develop PTSD, and up to 6 percent of boys.

If your child shows signs of anxiety, how can you help?

Ask what's going on in her life. Is she over-scheduled? Struggling in school? Being bullied? Maybe a break in a difficult routine is needed.

Many kids struggle with the additives in processed foods. Common triggers are gluten, red food dyes, MSG and its chemical counterparts, artificial sweeteners and chemical preservatives. Additionally, a diet high in starch and sugar may cause blood sugar levels to plummet. This can lead to agitation, anxiety and even panic attacks. A cleaner diet may lessen or even eliminate the symptoms.

Ask for help. Discuss concerns with a pediatrician and get a referral. According to the 2015 Child Mind Institute Children's Mental Health Report, 80 percent of kids with anxiety disorders are not getting help. While anxiety is a part of modern life, a good counselor can determine the best course of action to help your child work through that for her physical and mental health.

Remember, life can be tough — and it's OK if our kids need a little extra help along the way.

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