Signs of anxiety in young kids

By Lexi Walters Wright

It’s not unusual for kids, even young ones, to sometimes feel anxious. But how do you know if anxiety is a problem for a child? It can be confusing. That’s especially true of kids who learn and think differently, who are more likely than other kids to feel anxious about school and friendship.

If you’re wondering if a preschooler or grade-schooler may be struggling with anxiety or stress, here are signs you might see, according to John Piacentini, PhD, and Lindsey Bergman, PhD, experts from the UCLA Child Anxiety Resilience Education and Supports (CARES) Center.

Physical signs of anxiety

  • Often complains of headaches or stomachaches, even though there’s no medical reason for them
  • Refuses to eat snacks or lunch at daycare or school
  • Won’t use bathrooms except at home
  • Is restless, fidgety, hyperactive, or distracted (even without having ADHD)
  • Starts to shake or sweat in intimidating situations
  • Constantly tenses muscles
  • Has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep

Emotional signs of anxiety

  • Cries a lot
  • Is very sensitive
  • Becomes grouchy or angry without any clear reason
  • Is afraid of making even minor mistakes
  • Has panic attacks (or is afraid of having panic attacks)
  • Worries about things that are far in the future, like worrying about starting middle school in third grade
  • Is worried or afraid during drop-offs (at daycare, school, relatives’ homes, etc.)
  • Has frequent nightmares about losing a parent or loved one

Behavioral signs of anxiety

  • Asks “what if?” constantly (“What if an earthquake happened?”)
  • Avoids joining in during class activities like circle time
  • Remains silent or preoccupied when expected to work with others
  • Refuses to go to school
  • Stays inside alone at lunch or recess
  • Avoids social situations with other kids, like birthday parties or extracurricular activities
  • Constantly seeks approval from parents and caregivers, teachers, and friends
  • Says “I can’t do it!” without a real reason
  • Has meltdowns or tantrums

How you can help

Understanding what’s causing the anxiety is the first step toward helping. Take a closer look at the behavior. You can use the anxiety tracker below to take notes. See if you can pick up on patterns.

Anxiety TrackerPDF

Share your observations with the people who are partners in finding the best support for kids. These include parents, caregivers, teachers, and pediatricians.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Lexi Walters Wright is the former Community Manager at Understood. As a writer and editor, she helps parents make more informed choices for their children and for themselves.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    John Piacentini, PhD is a professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Child Anxiety Resilience Education and Support (CARES) Center.