Anxiety vs. Stress vs. Perfectionism: Helping Our Children Cope

This new series is all about homeschooling a child with anxiety. Today, we kick it off with a discussion of the differences between stress and anxiety, as well as the impact of perfectionism on our gifted children. 


anxiety in children


Anxiety is a topic that comes up often, especially when we’re raising neurodiverse, gifted and twice exceptional children. These kids struggle with big worries, and we want to make sure that we’re aware of it. This helps us recognize any signs of it getting worse so that we can be proactive and help our kids before it becomes debilitating.

I don’t say this to worry you so that you’re always on edge thinking about what could go wrong, but I do want to bring it to your attention. The good news is, it is possible to  recognize signs early.


anxiety vs. stress


Recognizing The Early Signs Of Childhood Anxiety

I have a couple of kids who struggle with anxiety and we didn’t know early on what it looked like. We sought help for our oldest when he was around eight, and a psychologist was able to work with him and help him tremendously. It was a great experience for all of us.

I wish in retrospect that we had gotten help sooner, because we would have been further along more quickly. Interestingly, through that process, I learned about my own anxiety that had gone undiagnosed and untreated throughout my childhood. It helped me with my own anxiety, as I learned more about his struggles. It also helped me use my own experience as a way to help him,

My third child has generalized anxiety disorder. Because we had the benefit of experience, we were able to recognize the signs early on and get her the support she needed. It made a tremendous difference. She is now entering the teen years, and she is able to recognize some of her physical and emotional symptoms before she has panic attacks. She’s also able to recognize in the moment when she’s struggling, so she can use some of her tools to advocate for herself. 


Anxiety vs. Stress vs. Perfectionism

When we’re talking about stress or worry, it’s easy for us to slip right on into thinking it must be anxiety. The reality is, most of the time we are actually talking about stress. Stress is our body’s natural defense against danger.

It’s the flood of the fight, freeze, or flee mechanism in our body. It’s the rush of cortisol and other hormones that tell us our body is in danger and we need to do something to protect ourselves. That’s stress.

Stress is a completely natural thing. It is something that is primal in our bodies. It’s something that everybody deals with from, from time to time. 

When our children are faced with an uncertain situation, environmental factors can trigger stress. These are called stressors. Examples include noise, aggressive behavior, a speeding car going by, or scary moments in movies. When our teens are starting to recognize that they might be interested in a boy or a girl and want to start dating, those butterflies are also a form of stressor.

There is not necessarily just one stressor. We can feel many at the same time. Routine stress we often experience as adults like finding childcare, getting kids to where they need to be on time, dealing with a broken down car and having to juggle one vehicle as a family, financial responsibilities, a family illness, a death in the family, or finding out about a job loss – these are routine things that happen to us on an ongoing basis. 

One of the reasons we’ve seen such a rise in childhood anxiety is because our kids have been dealing with a bombardment of stressors in the general population.  We’ve had civil unrest, a pandemic, medical challenges, and uncertainty with the food supply. We can shelter our kids as much as we want, but the truth of the matter is our kids are smart. They’re finding out about what’s going on in the world, whether we shelter them or not. They’re picking up on what’s going on around them, and this can lead to more harmful types of stress.


Acute Vs. Chronic Stress In Children

There are two different kinds of stress: acute stress, which is short term and chronic stress, which develops over time and can be harmful.

We want to make sure that as parents we’re helping our kids deal with acute stress so that it doesn’t become chronic. We never want our kids to feel that anything is completely outside their control and that they aren’t ever going to be able to rise above whatever situation is happening at that moment. We don’t want them to feel that there’s no hope because that’s what leads to chronic stress, which can then lead to chronic anxiety and depression.


anxiety in children


Helping Our Children With Anxiety

Anxiety is when the duration and the severity of those stressors, those anxious feelings, become out of proportion with the original trigger. The original stressor  is no longer proportionate to the body’s response. Physical symptoms start to appear like increased blood pressure and nausea.

This is when we need to take a look at what’s going on in our kids’ lives and evaluate further. The APA describes a person with anxiety disorder is having recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. These thoughts are getting in the way of their everyday experiences being able to move forward.

Anxiety is not just worry. It’s excessive worry. It’s consuming worry. It’s worry to the point of terror and impending doom. 

I want us to remember that in the moment when our children are struggling with anxiety, when they’re melting down, when they’re in the midst of a panic attack, and cycling through recurring or intrusive or obsessive thoughts, that’s the time to be there for them.

That’s the time to say, do you want me to rub your back? Do you want me to give you a hug? Do you want me to just sit here with you? It’s it’s the time to just let them know that you’re there to do whatever it is that they need. If they don’t want to be touched, then you just sit there with them.  If they do want to be touched, then you’re hugging them and cuddling them, whatever it is they need in the moment.

The average half-life of an anxiety attack is about 14 minutes. This means that the average crescendo of a panic attack from the buildup to the point where you start to come out is about seven minutes. This means if we can get through that first seven minutes, it’s going to get better. We can get through anything in seven minutes, we can sit and talk to our kid for seven minutes and help them come out of the panic.


anxiety in children


Perfectionism and Anxiety

While perfectionism is not an anxiety disorder, it can lead to some pretty serious things, including anxiety and depression. Perfectionism is a need not to just do well, but to be perfect. 

Research in clinical experience, shows that perfectionism is more about the fear of failure than the urging for success. Perfectionism actually gets in your way of being successful.  There is no such thing as healthy perfectionism. Striving for excellence is healthy, but perfectionism in and of itself is never, ever healthy thinking.

Why am I even talking about perfectionism when it comes to anxiety? Because gone unchecked, perfectionism can lead to a host of serious challenges in in teens, especially our girls. It can lead to self-harm. It can lead to eating disorders. It can lead to severe depression.


Talking To Our Children About Stress, Anxiety, and Perfectionism

This set of dynamic worksheets will help you work with your child, as they learn more about themselves, their stressors, and their anxiety. 

Click here to subscribe


Raising Lifelong Learners Podcast #158: Anxiety vs. Stress vs. Perfectionism

In this episode of the Raising Lifelong Learners Podcast, Colleen kicks off a new series, all about anxiety and our atypical kids. This discussion contrasts the differences between stress and anxiety. She also speaks frankly about the impact of perfectionism on gifted children and how parents can help. 


Links And Resources From Today’s Show:




What to Do When Mistakes Make You Quake: A Kid's Guide to Accepting ImperfectionThe Book of MistakesMistakes That Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to BeThis Is My Life: A Guided journal and Planner for Tweens and TeensRaising Resilient Sons: A Boy Mom's Guide to Building a Strong, Confident, and Emotionally Intelligent FamilyRaising Creative Kids: A Collection of Simple Creativity Prompts for ChildrenThe Big Book of Kids Activities: 500 Projects That Are the Bestest, Funnest EverWhy I Love Homeschooling Neurodiverse Kids: 25 Parents Share the Joys & Challenges of Educating Their Kids Who Have ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Giftedness, or Are Otherwise Differently WiredLiving with Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and AdultsDifferently Wired: Raising an Exceptional Child in a Conventional WorldOn the Social and Emotional Lives of Gifted ChildrenBright Not Broken: Gifted Kids, ADHD, and Autism



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