What Does Anxiety Look Like in Kids? Well, a Lot Like Anger.

Welcome to our Back-to-School Blog Series! This week, we are featuring a variety of professionals who are sharing their expertise to help make the back-to-school transition a little bit easier for students, parents, and educators. Today, Georgie Gray, social worker and owner of Georgie Gray Counseling, will provide us insight into anxiety in young children:

We all know what anxiety is... right? It’s one of those concepts that seems straightforward until we try to define it. We might say it is worry or stress, and that is true. But what does it really mean, and what does it look like in day to day life?

Maybe for you it’s dreading an important meeting at work or feeling the constant pressure of making your paycheck cover your expenses. These thoughts and feelings might color the background of your daily life, dulling everything else, and making you short-tempered and irritable.

This is exactly what happens when kids feel anxious. Anxiety, stress, and worry come from different sources for kids but the result is the same: anxious kids have less room for the good stuff of life because dealing with stress takes so much energy.

So, what does anxiety look like in kids? It looks like a tantrum about how you didn’t say, “good morning” the right way. It looks like rigid rules about how to correctly pack one’s backpack before school. It looks like bedtime battles, quick tempers, and tears. In other words, anxiety in kids often comes out as irritability and anger (very much like adults).

The difference is, adults are better able to name what is happening (“I’m so stressed about money”) and take steps to cope, like making a budget, venting to a friend, or exercising, for example. Kids just don’t have the insight and experience (yet) to feel help themselves feel better.

There are several things parents can do to help:

Behavior is Communication

Understand that children’s behaviors are their way of expressing themselves (not just their words). Anger and tantrums are your child’s ways of saying, “Things feel terrible inside me right now.” Try not to get caught up in your own worries (like: “My kid is manipulating me”). Let go of the idea of figuring out why your child is behaving the way he is, at least for the moment. Focus instead on the goals of helping your child feel better right now, and supporting him in learning new skills for feeling better in the future.


Problem-solve with your child about the things he seems to struggle with most. For example: “It seems like packing your backpack stresses you out. Is there anything we can figure out together to make that easier?” Collaborate on solutions. Offer your support and guidance. If your child feels that you are on his team, he may be able to offload some of his stress, and his behavior may improve. Together try to come up with strategies for coping with anger the next time your child is upset. For example, taking slow, deep breaths; squeezing a stress ball; listening to music; or running, jumping or dancing to use up nervous energy.

Talk about It

Invite your child to talk about what is on his mind. Avoid putting your child on the spot or asking too many questions. Instead, just spend time near your child, doing things you both enjoy. Talking about emotions makes people—kids and adults—feel vulnerable, so take care to honor the signals your child is giving about his comfort level. Set yourself up as a good listener, not a good advice-giver. You’ll get much further that way. Side-by-side activities often work best for conversations like these, such as riding bikes together or driving in the car; things feel less intense when there is no chance for eye contact, and when the talk feels more spontaneous.

Show Support

Use your body language and attention to convey that your child is enough, just as he is. This is a powerful message, and the more we send it to our kids the better they will feel. When kids believe that their parents love them, warts and all, they feel less afraid to try new things, and to make mistakes (often what kids worry about most). Send your child a “you’ve got this” look, or touch his shoulder to let him know you’re there, you support him, even with all his big and hard-to-understand feelings.


Most important of all: try to have empathy when times are tough. Try to see your child’s tantrums, irrational behavior, tears, and drama through a new lens, the lens of anxiety. Though you may never know exactly what feelings are underneath your child’s behavior, empathy goes a long way toward making things better. After all, when you’re frantically trying to get out the door in the morning for that dreaded work meeting, doesn’t a kind word feel better than somebody sternly saying, “it’s not that big a deal, pull yourself together!”? I know it does for me.

About the Author

Georgie Gray, MSSA, LISW-S, is a therapist in private practice with over 20 years’ experience working with children and families. She works primarily with families with children ages 10 and under, and specializes in anxiety, depression, peaceful parenting, attachment, and trauma. Georgie’s work is home-based, not office-based, because of the unique opportunities that provides for understanding families’ issues and needs. You can contact Georgie by phone (216-225-3859) or e-mail (GeorgieGrayCounseling@gmail.com). For more information about her practice, visit her website: www.georgiegraycounseling.com