Anxiety in Children
It’s normal for children to feel worried or anxious from time to time, such as when they’re starting school or nursery, or moving to a new area.
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear – it’s an understandable reaction in children to change or a stressful event.
But for some children, anxiety affects their behaviour and thoughts on a daily basis, interfering with their school, home and social life. This is when you may need professional help to tackle it before it becomes a more serious issue.
So how do you know when your child’s anxiety has reached this stage?
What are the signs of anxiety in children?
Anxiety can make a child feel scared, panicky, embarrassed or ashamed.
Some of the signs to look out for in your child are:
- finding it hard to concentrate
- not sleeping, or waking in the night with bad dreams
- not eating properly
- quickly getting angry or irritable, and being out of control during outbursts
- constantly worrying or having negative thoughts
- feeling tense and fidgety, or using the toilet often
- always crying
- being clingy all the time (when other children are ok)
- complaining of tummy aches and feeling unwell
Your child may not be old enough to recognise why they’re feeling this way.
The reason for the anxiety (if there is one) will differ depending on the age of the child. Separation anxiety is common in younger children, whereas older children and teenagers tend to worry more about school performance, relationships or health.
What types of anxiety do children and teenagers experience?
Common types of anxiety in children and teenagers are described below.
A fear or phobia about something specific
Children are commonly afraid of things like monsters, dogs or water. This is a perfectly normal part of growing up, but has the potential to become a phobia (a type of anxiety disorder) when the fear becomes overwhelming and affects your child’s day-to-day life.
Read about phobias
Feeling anxious for most of the time for no apparent reason
While it’s normal for children to frequently have fears and worries, some anxious children may grow up to develop a long-term condition called generalised anxiety disorder when they become a teenager or young adult.
Generalised anxiety disorder causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event.
People affected by it feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed.
Separation anxiety means a child worrying about not being with their parent or regular carer.
It is common in young children, and normally develops at about six months of age. It can make settling into nursery or school or with a child minder very difficult.
Separation anxiety in older children may be a sign that they’re feeling insecure about something – they could be reacting to changes at home, for example.
Social anxiety is not wanting to go out in public, see friends or take part in activities.
Social ‘shyness’ is perfectly normal for some children and teenagers, but it becomes a problem – ‘social anxiety disorder’ – when everyday activities like shopping or speaking on the phone cause intense, overwhelming fear. Children affected by it tend to fear doing or saying something they think will be humiliating.
Social anxiety disorder tends to affect older children who have gone through puberty.
Some children become anxious about going to school, schoolwork, friendships or bullying, especially if they’re changing school or moving up a level.
They may not always share these worries with you, and instead complain of tummy aches or feeling sick. One of the signs is crying or seeming tired in the morning.
This may be a problem that needs tackling if it is significantly affecting their daily life (see below).
Less common anxiety disorders
When is anxiety a disorder that needs treating?
It is probably time to get professional help for your child’s anxiety if:
- you feel it is not getting better or is getting worse, and efforts to tackle it yourself have not worked
- you think it’s slowing down their development or having a significant effect on their schooling or relationships
- it happens very frequently
How serious can it be?
Long-term anxiety can severely interfere with a child’s personal development, family life and schooling.
Anxiety disorders that start in childhood often persist into the teenage years and early adulthood. Teenagers with an anxiety disorder are more likely to develop clinical depression, misuse drugs and feel suicidal.
This is why you should get help as soon as you realise it’s a problem.
Where should I go for help?
You can talk to your GP on your own or with your child, or your child might be able to have an appointment without you. The doctor should listen to your concerns and offer some advice about what to do next.
If your child doesn’t want to see a doctor, they may be able to get help from a local youth counselling service.
Youth counselling services are specially set up for young people to talk about what’s worrying them, and get advice.
How can an anxiety disorder be treated?
The type of treatment offered will depend on what is causing your child’s anxiety.
It can be helpful for your child to talk in confidence about what is worrying them to a trained person, especially as it’s someone they don’t know.
These sessions can help them work out what is making them anxious and how they can work through the situation.
It has been proven to help with anxiety that isn’t severe, and is commonly offered to young people who are anxious.
What can I do to help my child?
If a child is experiencing anxiety, there is plenty parents and carers can do to help. First, it’s important to talk to your child about their anxiety or worries.
Why are some children affected and others not?
Some children are simply born more nervous and anxious and less able to cope with stress than other children.
A child’s anxious personality may be partly determined by the genes they’ve inherited from their parents. Parents of anxious children may recognise the signs and remember feeling and behaving the same when they were younger.
Children can pick up anxious behaviour from being around anxious people.
Some children can also develop anxiety after a series of stressful events. They may be able to cope with one of these events, but several difficult events together may be too much for them to cope with. Examples are:
- Frequently moving house and school – it can be hard to settle when you’re always expecting change
- Divorce or separation of parents, especially when there are new step parents and siblings (although many children will adapt to this and settle in time)
- Parents fighting or arguing
- Death of a close relative or friend
- Becoming seriously ill or injured in an accident
- Having someone in the family who is ill or disabled
- School-related issues such as homework or exams, or bullying or friendship problems
- Becoming involved in crime
- Being abused or neglected
How common are anxiety disorders in children?
Nearly 300,000 young people in Britain have an anxiety disorder.
In the UK, anxiety disorders are estimated to affect 5-19% of all children and adolescents, and about 2-5% of children younger than 12.
Separation anxiety is the most common anxiety disorder in children younger than 12.
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