The Simple Way To Tell If Your Child Has Anxiety (Or Is Just Stressed)

Photo: dimaberlinphotos | Canva
Young girl anxious at the end of her bed

By Lauren Levy

Many parents don't understand the difference between stress and anxiety in adults, let alone in children.

According to Dr. Aarti Gupta, a psychologist and clinical director of TherapyNest: A Center for Anxiety and Family Therapy, the terms "stress" and "anxiety" are often used interchangeably in the English vernacular, but there are major differences between the two.

"I conceptualize stress as an external pressure or tension that is exerted on a child. Sources of stress for kids could be parental conflict, moving to a new home, excessive homework, bullying at school, or even a scary book or movie," Gupta explained to POPSUGAR. However, she describes anxiety as the response to that stress, which parents can see in worry, nervousness, or in their kids feeling uncertain.

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It can be difficult for children to articulate their feelings either way, so it's important to keep an eye on clues that might give away any uneasiness. Gupta explained that if your child is experiencing anxiety or stress, he or she may be clingy or display changes in sleeping or eating patterns, have high levels of irritability or a short temper, be tearful, report stomachaches, and refuse to go to school.

Stress is a normal part of life, but a generalized anxiety disorder involves more than that temporary worry. Here are the five major differences between stress and anxiety.

Here are 5 ways to tell if your kid actually has anxiety, or is just stressed:

1. Stress is usually temporary, while anxiety tends to stick around

An easy way to understand the difference is that stress can be attributed to a specific factor, while anxiety is the long-term uneasiness that can be felt even after that stressor is gone.

Anxiety is also how your child's body responds to stress and children with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) will continue to have this response even without the stressful event.

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2. Stress is a natural response and can cause some kids to do better

When the human body is stressed, it reacts by releasing more adrenaline, which leads to elevated heart rate and blood pressure. This fight-or-flight-like response can prime some kids to do better, while prolonged anxiety can lead to pain and fatigue for others.

3. Stress is usually caused by a specific problem, while anxiety can involve worrying without a known cause

To put it simply, stress is typically caused by something that has a specific start and stop, and kids who are stressed will often feel better after the situation is diffused. However, it doesn't always take a stressor to trigger children with GAD and they can continue to feel upset even after stressful events or without any identifiable reason.

What children find stressful can vary, but those with anxiety might not be able to identify a cause for their fear or they may feel a sense of impending doom.

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4. There are multiple childhood anxiety disorders and they all have different symptoms

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), one in eight kids suffers from an anxiety disorder. These children are more likely to "perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse."

Childhood anxiety disorders that parents should be aware of include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, selective mutism, and specific phobias.

5. Kids with generalized anxiety disorder can feel less in control

Children who are suffering from GAD are dealing with persistent worry over a variety of things and, according to the ADAA, often expect the worst outcome for no reason. Unlike stress where kids know the source of their concern and can work toward solving that problem, children with GAD have a difficult time controlling their worry over an extended period of time.

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Lauren Levy is a former assistant editor at PopSugar. She's worked on staff at Fast Company, New York Magazine, the Fader, and Apple News. She is the founding Deputy Editor at the radical Jewish quarterly PROTOCOLS.

This article was originally published at PopSugar. Reprinted with permission from the author.