Anxiety in children

Anxiety in children

Children can experience anxiety for a variety of different reasons. Many of the
worries children and young people experience are ‘age appropriate’, ‘normal’ and expected; for example, they may have to complete a Science project on Aliens at school and then suddenly become scared at night that an Alien is going to come through their window and into their bedroom!

Young children, up until the age of around 3, are susceptible to experiencing ‘separation anxiety’ due to developmental understanding, for example they continue to learn that Mum and Dad will come back through experience. They may become upset or cling to a primary care giver when being left anywhere. It is also common for young children (around nursery school age) to develop specific fears or even ‘phobias’ about different things, for example dogs or insects. However, these usually subside as they grow and develop.

Just like adults, children are likely to experience ‘common worries’ and feel some levels of anxiety, for example when starting a new school or having to take a test. However, Anxiety becomes problematic when it begins to have a significant impact upon the child or young person’s life.

Anxiety presents in children in different ways. They may begin to refuse to attend school, continually report illness (e.g., feeling sick or actually vomiting), become withdrawn and refuse to attend parties or sleepovers. Children and young people may become angry or aggressive. You may believe the child to be difficult or defiant, however their behaviour and presentation could all be because internally they are significantly struggling with unhelpful thoughts and feelings.

Severe anxiety in children like this can impact their mental and emotional state, alongside their self-confidence and self-esteem. They may begin to avoid things and have an increased need for reassurance. When children are feeling anxious, they cannot always understand and verbalise what they are experiencing. You may notice some or all of the following symptoms:

- Avoiding certain people, situations or environments.
- Have difficulties sleeping, for example falling asleep or staying asleep.
- Become angry, irritable or frustrated.
- Have bad dreams.
- Become clingy or need reassurance (for example, asking the same or similar questions about something).
- Report feeling unwell (for example, bad headaches) or actually vomiting.

In slightly older children you may see the above, plus:

- Withdrawal, for example no-longer spending time with their friends.
- Not meeting their daily needs.
- Loss of appetite.
- Finding it difficult to concentrate

There are many reasons why children develop anxiety, with some having more of a predisposition than others. Some children may experience a traumatic situation (e.g. a car accident or a house fire), some find arguments within the family or conflict difficult. Also, some children may find changes in their lives difficult, for example school transition.

How to help an anxious child:

- There are things that primary caregivers can do: talking is really helpful and important, support your child in understanding what they are experiencing,
identify themes and ensure they feel understood and validated.

- It may be useful to explain to your children ‘what anxiety is’, in particular the fight or flight response. There are many resources online that can support
parents in describing this.

- As well as supporting your child in understanding worries, it is also important to find helpful solutions – for example making a step-by-step plan, alongside
goals and a reward scheme (e.g., marble jar or star chart).

- Finally, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is really successful for the
treatment of anxiety in children, with guidelines and evidence suggesting that
under the age of 12 the therapeutic work should be parent led. Over the age
of 12 the therapeutic work will be one-to-one. Alongside this, the new ‘Comfort
Cards’ Kids Pack is an extremely useful tool to offer parents, clinicians and
relevant others the guidance they need to begin supporting, addressing and
improving their child’s symptoms.

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