Anxiety in Children: What You Need to Know

Children worrying and feeling anxious occasionally, in general, or about specific things, is normal. However, this doesn’t stop it being concerning and difficult for parents, children and siblings to live through. Additionally, there come times when the anxiety can become more marked or constant.

So, how do parents recognise this? What can parents do to help alleviate anxiety in children, and when should they get further help?

This article is a comprehensive guide to anxiety in children, and we hope to answer any questions you may have.

The Anxious Child

Research suggests that up to 1 in 6 children will experience an anxiety condition at some point. However, these statistics don’t convey just how many families are living with an anxious child who doesn’t meet the threshold for a diagnosis, or even really the need to seek medical help.

All parents hate it when their child is worried. Our natural instinct is to remove the anxiety-inducing obstacle. However, sometimes this isn’t actually possible, or appropriate.

Our children, instead, need to be equipped with the tools to manage their anxiety. Just like you can teach reading, writing, riding a bike, or being assertive, we can teach children the tools to help them manage worries and anxiety.

Recognising an Anxious Child

With more limited vocabulary and less contextual understanding of the world, it can be difficult to identify when a child is anxious. Worrying and anxiety can present in multiple different ways in different children, and at different ages.

Firstly, it is important to remember that little people experience enormous emotions. Remember that their frame of reference is considerably more limited than an adult’s. Things can seem frightening and bewildering to a child which an adult can take in their stride. This is a normal part of childhood development. They are also going through times of enormous and rapid change as they grow up which is again ripe territory for anxiety.

Furthermore, children are acutely sensitive about what goes on around them. Remember that being a child involves little control over their own lives. They may have illogical responses which are completely illogical to an adult mind, such as believing their parents’ separation is their fault or that ghosts will take them away.

Generally, anxiety in children is largely short-lived. This is particularly true about transitory anxiety in young children. As they develop and gain more control and understanding, they no longer worry about the same things.

We understand that living with an anxious child is a difficult time for parents. You need a break, perhaps more than usual.

By choosing a babysitter from Sitters you can be sure that you’re getting a vetted and professional childcarer who will be sympathetic to your child’s needs and worries.

A Word about Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a specific type of anxiety usually experienced in very young children. This anxiety occurs as a young child realises their caregiver is a separate being from them and can leave. They don’t have the experience to feel certain that their caregiver will return. It is characterised by immensely clingy behaviour and great distress when a parent goes out of sight.

We talk more about separation anxiety and how to help your child overcome it here.

The Signs of Anxiety in Children

Understanding anxiety in children is complicated by the fact that different children demonstrate their anxiety in different ways. Signs of anxiety can also vary by age. Common signs of anxiety in children include:

  • Extreme shyness or clinginess.
  • Difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep.
  • Bed-wetting.
  • Being uncharacteristically irritable or weepy, or displaying anger outbursts which aren’t proportional or age-appropriate.
  • Difficulties mixing with other children.
  • Frequent and repeated nightmares.
  • Low-key but frequent complaints about tummy ache, headaches, or non-specific aches and pains.
  • Frequent requests for reassurance that they are doing something correctly, or are loved.
  • Panic attacks or hyperventilating.
  • Difficulties concentrating.
  • Belief that they may die or be injured, or that ‘bad things’ will happen.
  • Lack of confidence in themselves to do simple tasks.
  • Avoidance of everyday activities and situations.
  • Obsessive or repetitive behaviour or thoughts.
  • Phobias: irrational fears of specific things including social phobia, school phobia or the infamous one, spiders!
  • Eating difficulties.
  • Self-harming behaviour.

Knowing how to help your child handle anxiety will, to some degree, require you to understand why they are anxious.

Why Do Children Experience Anxiety?

There are a multitude of reasons as to why a child may experience anxiety. They can include:

  • Difficulties at school either academically, with their teacher/s, or due to friendship issues.
  • Bullying.
  • Temperamental disposition: this is particularly worth noting if you or their other parent is a ‘worrier’ or has a history of anxiety.
  • Family problems such as separation, parental arguments, bereavement or illness.
  • Health or disability.
  • Role-reversal where the child takes on a ‘leadership’ role: this can occur when parents seek reassurance from their children, rather than the other way around.
  • Excessive discipline or controlling behaviour from caregivers.
  • Relationship worries: as children grow and form relationships outside of the framework of family or school.
  • Poor self-esteem.
  • Change, for example if they are moving to a new school or house.
  • Traumatic experiences, for example a car accident.

It’s also important to realise that sometimes there is no clear rhyme or reason for anxiety. This doesn’t make it any less real, or any less important to deal with.

How to Help a Child Manage Their Anxiety

For routine and everyday anxiety it is possible to help a child without seeking medical input. However, if you are particularly worried about your child or a young person, or they are self-harming or thinking of suicide, then it is vital to get further help. We will explain how to get help later on in this guide.

There are a number of different ways you can help your child to become less anxious:

  • Time: Sometimes time is the best healer. It’s not unusual for worries to disappear in time, especially childhood phobias.
  • Cognitive-behavioural approaches at home: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is very useful for managing anxiety. Parents can implement strategies and tools at home. A great resource for learning how to do this is the book What to Do When You Worry Too Much by Dawn Huebner.
  • Reassure them that worrying is normal: As humans we were designed to worry due to survival requirements. They are therefore going to be far from alone as a worrier. Sometimes simply sharing with a child that worrying is a normal experience can help them to feel calmer.

For young children, a useful book for helping explain this is The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside. It’s also important to explain to them that anxiety is not a permanent state.

  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a powerful anti-anxiety tool which we can teach to children from toddlerhood onwards. Mindfulness and stilling the mind can actually trick the brain out of the fight or flight feelings that we experience with anxiety. Another good resource here is Sitting Still Like a Frog by Eline Snel. This is a CD and book combination that is ideal for younger children. Basic deep breathing can also help.
  • Listen and be calm: Simply taking the chance to be available to an anxious child and listening to them, without judgment, can help them to frame their anxiety more appropriately. Try not to respond with frustration or anger.
  • Write it down: A child may like the concept of you, or them, writing down their worry and locking it up, or ripping it up. Sometimes things seem less scary when written down.
  • Use routine: Children are creatures of habit. They feel reassured when they know what happens when, so use routine to your advantage.
  • Try not to dwell: We can think that it’s important to listen and respond reassuringly time and again to a child’s worries. However, sometimes the converse is true. By constantly reassuring them, we may inadvertently give them the sense they are right to be anxious. Therefore, acknowledge how they feel, reassure initially, and then try to move on.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene and excellent nutrition: Well-rested and well-sustained children are better mentally and physically equipped to handle the worries of life.
  • Try not to show your own anxiety about their anxiety: This may lead them to worry more, and feel that you aren’t in control either. Try to remain calm.
  • Exercise: Worrying produces adrenaline, needed for our ability to run out of danger from our caveman days. However, now the monsters aren’t sabre-toothed tigers but are less physical dangers. Therefore, exercise will burn the adrenaline as well as releasing endorphins, the feel good chemicals.
  • Help them not to avoid anxiety-inducing situations: Allowing your child to skip school if they are worried, or not do the thing they are concerned about, will reinforce the idea that they are right to be worried. The anxiety will be even harder to overcome the next time.
  • Distract: Sometimes you can’t beat good old distraction. Find a favourite activity and engage the child in that. It’s more positive than dwelling on the anxiety.

When to Get Help

It’s important to recognise when you should get further help for your child, and how to do this.

Anxiety and worry are problems when they stop a child doing normal things. Anxiety at this level is detrimental to their well-being and should be addressed. Furthermore, if anxiety, even at a lower level, is ongoing and persistent, then you will need additional help.

Your first port-of-call should be your GP. They can signpost you to services and resources which are available in your area. You also may be able to get help from your child’s school.

You could also choose to use the help of a psychotherapist who is experienced with children. They will be able to teach your child ways to manage their anxiety.

A great resource for parents who have an anxious child is Young Minds. They have a free parent helpline on 0808 802 5544.

Try Not to Worry

It’s your natural instinct as a parent to worry when your child is struggling. However, this will only fuel the situation. Therefore, try to be proactive instead and equip your child with the skills they need to manage their anxiety both now and in the future.

Remember, a babysitter is not only there to cover a night out, but also is there to give you some free time to breathe and gather your thoughts whenever you need it.

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