Anxiety is defined by a feeling of uneasiness and worry and these feelings can be related to many different things according to different people. While it is normal to feel worried about some situations such as an interview, meeting new people, or doing a presentation, when these feelings of worry and anxiety do not go away, last for a long period of time, or start to interfere with everyday life, it may be that you are suffering from a form of anxiety.
Anxiety affects around 5% of the population, and while a lot of the time this disorder is associated with adults, it is important to understand that children can also suffer from many forms of anxiety. Symptoms of the disorder may present slightly differently in children than they do in adults, however, this does not make their illness any less serious, and if their condition is affecting the child’s everyday life then their parent may need to seek professional treatment for them in order to avoid problems in later life.
Furthermore, identifying anxiety in children may be difficult as depending on the child’s age they may not have developed their language skills enough to discuss how they are feeling with parents and other adults. Therefore it is necessary to educate yourself on the key signs and symptoms of child anxiety so that we will be able to recognise it within your own children and get treatment in a timely manner.
What makes children anxious?
What makes children anxious will be different to what makes adults anxious, and similarly, children of different ages will feel anxious about different things. As mentioned previously it is normal to feel worry and anxiety in certain situations, and this is the same for childhood years. When children are around 6 months it is very common for them to develop separation anxiety, and are unsettled when they are away from their parents. Additionally, later in life when the child starts to attend school, their anxiety may be more focused on specific phobias the child has such as the dark, animals, water, heights and storms. These feelings and phobias usually gradually go away on their own as the child ages. These are normal feelings of anxiety that children go through as they are developing.
Things that may cause anxiety-based feelings that are not things that most children go through may be as a result of their individual life experiences. Stressful events such as constantly moving house or school, seeing their parents argue a lot, death of a family member or a friend, being a victim of bullying or neglect is likely to affect children in a negative way. This may result in the child developing feelings of anxiety that grows into a diagnosable anxiety disorder.
It has also been found that some children are simply more susceptible to anxiety from birth, due to genetics or their personality type. Anxiety disorders are complex and can be caused by a range of factors even in children. On one hand, some forms of anxiety may be part of growing up and developing, while what a child experiences in their life can also be a factor in the development of an anxiety disorder.
When does anxiety become a problem?
Like with adults, anxiety becomes a problem when it starts to affect their everyday life and activities. If this is stopping the child from their daily routines such as seeing friends and attending school then this may be a cause for concern. A child experiencing anxiety can be very difficult for them as they do not know how to express these strong feelings and emotions or how to discuss them fully, as a result, it can severely affect their mental wellbeing. It can lower their self-esteem and confidence and the child may become withdrawn, avoiding any people or situations that make them feel even the slightest bit anxious. This affects the child’s social skills, friendships, experiences growing up, and even their education.
In young children anxiety may include symptoms such as them being more irritable and restless, being clingy to parents, crying more often, having sleeping problems and experiencing bad dreams or nightmares.
In children who are a bit older signs of anxiety to look out for include a loss of confidence, eating problems (too much or too little), trouble sleeping, lack of concentration, expressing anger more often, having negative thoughts, avoiding people including friends and family and not wanting to attend school.
Ways you can help your child
Firstly as a parent or carer, the most important thing you can do to help your child who is showing signs of an anxiety disorder is to talk to them. Ask them open questions about what worries they may have, and how they make them feel. You need to reassure them that they are safe, that their feelings are valid and that you understand and will support them however they need.
If the child is a bit older they may also be able to discuss their anxiety in detail, including any physical symptoms they may have such as heart palpitations or shortness of breath, what they think may be the cause of their anxiety and what support they need from you.
Whichever way the child talks about their anxiety make sure to fully listen to them and really try to understand where the source of their anxiety is coming from.
In addition to this, there are things you can do as a parent or carer that once you know more about the anxious feelings your child is having you can implement into their life. If the child is a bit older you could also come up with these solutions together. These are things you can do to either help the child once they start to feel anxious to calm down again, or what you can do to try and prevent these anxious feelings from occurring in the first place.
- Help them to recognise the onset of their anxious feelings, how they can manage these and to ask an adult for help in this instance.
- Stick to a daily routine as much as possible, the child will know what to expect throughout the day and will help them to feel prepared and reassured.
- If the child is struggling to understand their anxiety, find a suitable film, television show, or book in which a character is experiencing a similar thing. They will relate to the character and this may open a conversation where the child can discuss their feelings in a clearer manner.
- Breathing activities are always very successful when calming down from anxious feelings, deep breaths in and out for a number of seconds can calm the child down and help their anxious feelings reduce.
- Make a worry box. The child can write down any worries they have throughout the day no matter how big or small. Then at the end of the day go through the box with them and talk about/solve their worry.
When to get professional help?
While there are techniques and things you can do as a parent or carer to help your child cope with their anxiety, if the child still gets anxious regularly and these feelings are starting to affect their everyday life significantly you may want to seek professional help.
The treatments offered to children will depend on two factors, their age and their type of anxiety. Talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are the most common way to treat childhood anxiety. The aim of CBT is to change the way the child thinks about their anxiety and in turn how they behave when they feel anxious. It finds the cause of the anxiety and will equip the child with methods they can use if they start to feel anxious in their daily life. The result being that the child can cope with the feelings themselves and their anxiety is manageable, no longer affecting their everyday life and activities in a significant manner.
If you have any questions about childhood anxiety and would like to speak to a professional for information and advice, book a free peer support session on our website.