The difference between typical anxiety and an anxiety problem

By Kate Kelly

Expert reviewed by John Piacentini, PhD

All kids feel anxious from time to time. But kids who learn and think differently are more likely to struggle with anxiety. How can you tell whether your child’s level of anxiety is typical and appropriate, or something more?

This chart can help you understand the difference between typical anxiety and an anxiety problem, and how to support your child in both situations.

  Typical anxietyAn anxiety problem
What is it?

A temporary and expected response to a stressful situation. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s appropriate to what’s going on.

Kids feel worried or fearful about something. But it passes, and it doesn’t interfere with other areas of life.

Kids who learn and think differently may have extra reasons to feel anxious, like taking a test in a subject they’re struggling in or going to a party if they have social skills issues.

Typical anxiety can sometimes reach a tipping point where it becomes too much and turns into an anxiety problem.

Frequent and intense feelings of anxiety that can sometimes be a diagnosable medical condition, like generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorder.

Kids spend more time than not feeling anxious. These intense feelings continue for an extended period of time. And they’re out of proportion to what’s going on. They also interfere with everyday functioning.

With an anxiety problem, anxious feelings can sometimes come out of the blue. There may be no specific event or situation that triggers them.

What it can look like

Kids worry about specific things. They may ask “What if?” questions, like “What if I fail the math test? Will I have to repeat the grade?” or “What if no one talks to me at the party or I say something dumb?”

Their anxious feelings may make them reluctant to take risks. They may avoid asking the math teacher for help, or decide they’d rather stay home than go to the party.

These episodes tend to be isolated, though. They usually pass quickly on their own, or with a little bit of reassurance.

They also typically don’t cause significant distress or lead to meltdowns. And they usually don’t get in the way of everyday life.

Kids with generalized anxiety disorder worry about many things — school, sports activities, things taking place far in the future, current events like war and school shootings, and what others think of them.

Their intense feelings may lead them to refuse to go to school, avoid social situations, withdraw from activities, not get along with family, and get irritable for no clear reason. Physical symptoms include headaches, stomachaches, fidgeting, trouble sleeping, and nightmares.

Kids with social anxiety disorder may be fearful of meeting new people. They might avoid doing things or interacting with others because they’re afraid of being judged.

Kids with separation anxiety disorder get very distressed when they’re away from home or not with a parent or caregiver. They might cling to parents, refuse to sleep alone, and avoid sleepovers and playdates.

How professionals can help

There’s no need for professional help for anxiety that’s temporary, appropriate to the situation, and not frequent.

There are many types of emotional help available for kids with anxiety.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can help kids look at negative thoughts and replace them with positive thinking. Kids learn to recognize what they’re feeling and manage those reactions. Professionals might also recommend anti-anxiety medication.

What schools can do

It’s important that teachers be sensitive to kids’ differences and avoid creating stressful situations.

For instance, maybe your child has trouble reading and feels anxious about reading aloud. The teacher could agree to not ask your child to read aloud. In some cases it could even be a formal support, or accommodation.

Support at school can help kids feel successful and reduce their worries. Schools can also identify adults who can provide emotional support when kids feel anxious.

Anxiety symptoms can get in the way of a child’s ability to focus and shift from one situation or task to another. Social situations like recess, field trips, and assemblies can also trigger anxiety.

Here are some common school supports specifically for anxiety disorders:

  • Advance notice of upcoming transitions
  • Seating where your child is most comfortable
  • Extended time on tests
  • Tests taken in a separate, quiet environment
  • A designated lunchtime buddy
  • Preferential grouping for field trips so a child is with a teacher or familiar people
  • A designated adult at school to seek help from when feeling anxious
What you can do
  • Take your child’s fears seriously but express confidence in your child’s ability to manage them.
  • Remind your child of past successes and strategies that worked in those situations.
  • Brainstorm new strategies and practice them.
  • Develop a backup plan. For instance, if your child is anxious about attending a birthday party, role-play scenarios. Agree to an early pickup if your child isn’t having fun. Talk about other parties your child had fun at in the past.
  • Try to avoid accidentally “rewarding” your child’s anxiety. For example, allowing your child to miss school or practice, substituting ice cream for going to a classmate’s party, or giving too much reassurance.
  • Talk openly with your child about anxiety in a supportive, nonjudgmental way. Seek your child’s perspective and share your own experiences.
  • Get familiar with signs of anxiety in young kids and teens and tweens. Take notes on what you see, and share your concerns with your child’s health care provider.
  • If your child is being treated for anxiety, be supportive and patient as your child develops new coping strategies. Help practice new techniques learned in therapy.
  • If your child has social anxiety, role-play social situations.
  • Consider talking to a mental health professional yourself to help you cope with the stress that can come with having a child with anxiety.

Helping kids overcome fears can help them build confidence and get better at managing future challenges. If you’re concerned about your child’s anxiety, use an anxiety log to keep track of what you’re seeing.