ADVICE: Why Does My Kid Struggle with Anxiety?

The sensory roots to anxiety and fear
A young girl reading a book, wearing sock near a book shelf

Our children’s fear and anxiety can often lead to behaviors that leave us scratching our heads and asking ourselves, “Why is my kid doing that?”

Anxiety is easier to spot and diagnose, but sensory issues can get overlooked. That’s why it’s important to get to the root of our children’s behaviors so we’re better equipped to help.

Does your child…

Seem very sensitive?

Seem overly cautious?

Seem bothered by the feeling of clothes on their skin?

Require extra help to fall asleep or need you to lie down with them?

Melt down after being in a loud or crowded place?

Notice even the smallest change?

Struggle with changes in routine?

Need to be in control?

If any of these behaviors describe your child, their anxiety may be rooted in the sensory system. We receive input from our senses every second of every day, which can leave children feeling over-stimulated and overwhelmed. This can result in meltdowns, tantrums, or avoidance of the situation that triggers the sensation.

As parents, we often have to play detective, as sensory and anxiety can be best buddies. Sensory differences can lead to anxiety, and anxiety can lead to sensory behaviors. For example, attending a birthday party may be overwhelming for some children because of the noise and sensory stimulation. For other children, that same birthday party can create anxiety from being in a new situation with kids they may not be familiar with.

To help discern between sensory or anxiety, consider:

Timing. Look not just what is taking place at the time of the behavior, but also what has taken place prior to the behavior. Sensory-related meltdowns can brew for some time before the meltdown occurs.

Patterns. Is there a common thread to certain behaviors? Do they avoid getting dressed on school days but are fine on weekends? Is your child fine in most restaurants but have one that’s too noisy and triggers undesirable behaviors?

Senses. When sensory is the root, it often impacts a range of senses. It’s rare for behaviors to be limited to just one thing, like getting dressed.

Here are some ways to help our children with sensory-rooted anxiety:

  • Help them understand their sensory needs
  • Model appropriate strategies to use to manage fear and anxiety
  • Allow for down time in their day
  • Learn to recognize when they are getting over-stimulated
  • Encourage belly breathing
  • Stick to a routine and make sure they are aware of any changes to the routine
  • Provide ample opportunities for movement and exercise

If your child’s fears and anxieties interfere with daily life, there is help. If you feel their behaviors are sensory in nature, talk to your pediatrician about a referral to Occupational Therapy. If you feel your child’s sensory behaviors are rooted in anxiety, a mental health therapist can be a great resource.

CINDY UTZINGER is an occupational therapist, mother of two, and author of Why Is My Kid Doing That?, a book to help parents better understand their child’s behavior.