Anxiety in children has grown to become the second highest mental health issue they face. How can parents recognise if their children have anxiety disorders and what can they do about it?
Read on to find out what causes anxiety in children, how to recognise the signs, what mistakes to avoid and seven simple ways to help your child.
Anxiety disorders are caused by a number of different factors, including:
- family history (a genetic predisposition)
- environmental factors such as ongoing stressful situations or traumatic life events
- brain chemistry
- personality factors
- medical problems (for example, anaphylaxis creating fear around certain triggers)
- or a combination of these
It is normal to experience some common fears at various ages and in certain social situations. However, anxiety in children is a more serious condition that can impact on their mental health and quality of life.
In the video below, psychologist Collett Smart likens anxiety to a smoke alarm system.
“Anxiety is like a faulty smoke alarm. A child with anxiety will translate smoke from a burnt toast to that of a whole house burning down,” she says.
What causes anxiety in children?
The growing prevalence of anxiety in children is likely a result of a faster pace of life. COVID-19 is also a major factor. Restrictions and living in a pandemic have not only created additional stress, many young people were also unable to access mental health support services during this period. At the same time, lifting restrictions has created social anxiety for many who have spent an extended amount of time in isolation.
With globalisation and the internet, young people receive a greater amount of information about what is happening in the world, which can cause worry. Research has shown the more time we spend on the screen, the more anxious and isolated we feel. In general, children are spending more time on screens and not being exposed to as many new and different situations that require them to adapt and develop new skills.
It is common for children to have fears as they are developing and learning about dangers and threats. However, younger children often don’t have the words to let you know how they are feeling, so we have to be attuned to them and know what they’re experiencing is normal anxiety and what may be a panic disorder.
Separation anxiety is a very common childhood anxiety. Our experts share tips on how to address your child’s fear of being separated from you.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact:
What are the signs of anxiety in a child
Anxiety symptoms will vary depending on the child’s personality and what’s going on in the child’s life. However, there are some typical signs to watch out for:
- Changes in toileting habits
- Changes in appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
- Appearing restless and sweaty
Note that while older children can tell you exactly what’s wrong, younger kids may just tell you they’re not feeling well.
- Displaying avoidance of certain situations (such as school-age children refusing to go to school)
- Seeking reassurance from a parent frequently
- Refusing to do things or being irritable when asked, as a way of avoidance
- Getting easily upset over seemingly small matters or things they should be able to do
- Not wanting to try new things, trying to get a parent to do something for them
Mistakes parents make when dealing with a child’s anxiety
There are two typical reactions parents have when faced with an anxious child:
- Interpret anxious behaviour as being naughty or defiant and respond with discipline. Unfortunately, this will not alleviate a child’s anxiety.
- Step in to make the situation easier for the child by doing the task or solving the problem for them. They may also enable the child in their avoidance by not requiring them to go to certain places or do certain tasks because it’s distressing for them, and for the parent to see their child in a fearful state. However, constantly shielding and removing obstacles for a child means they don’t get the chance to learn they are capable of coping in that situation, that perhaps the danger isn’t real but perceived or have positive experiences in that situation that will help them to feel less fearful about it in the future.
In the video below, psychologist Claire Marsh discusses more about how our parenting styles may cause us to make some mistakes when dealing with anxiety in children.
7 ways to help your child with anxiety
Anxiety is not something a child will necessarily just “grow out of”. Early intervention is the key and there are some practical ways parents can respond to their child’s anxiety.
The following are ways to manage an anxious child, but if your child is in the middle of a panic attack, you may want to try these strategies instead.
Watch this video to hear clinical psychologist Lynn Jenkins talk about a resource she’s created to help children with anxiety.
1. Help them calm down
If you believe their reaction is indeed anxiety, some simple relaxed breathing can help them to calm down. Guide your child to breathe in slowly and deeply for three seconds, hold for three seconds, then exhale for three seconds. Repeat as necessary. Talking with them will have a greater impact when they are calmer because they are able to think and reason. While they are anxious, they are not likely to process your words, but your calm tone of voice could be calming for them.
2. Clear limit-setting
Anxious children respond very well to this as without it, their worry can be consuming their thoughts throughout the day. Create a space and time for your child to let their worries out, for example a “worry box” where they spend 10–15 minutes per day during their “worry time” writing or drawing what worries their mind got stuck on during the day. When the time is up, the box gets closed and put away. This gives a child reassurance and validation that their thoughts matter, but that they don’t have to listen to what their fearful mind is telling them all the time.
3. Build their confidence gradually
Expose them to their fear triggers or specific phobias in little steps. For example, if your child is afraid of the water or swimming, don’t avoid taking them to the pool, but maybe start out by having them sit and watch other children swimming, slowly building up to putting their feet in the shallow end and eventually more of their body in the water (with your support) until they can be in there on their own. This might happen over a number of weeks or even longer, so be patient.
4. Make plans for the future
What could they do if things don’t go according to plan? Create time and space to talk about their fears. Children may have very real intense fears about what’s happening in their lives and the world, for example, the death of a pet or loved one, natural disasters or car crashes. It’s important we don’t sugar-coat our explanations to minimise these fears but to validate them and explain them in a very realistic and factual way. This will help children to understand and cope better.
5. Challenge the “what if” thoughts
Help them counter a negative and unhelpful thought that will trigger anxiety with a thought that is equally as likely and more helpful in building courage. For example, “What if I go to school and no-one talks to me?” could become “What if I go to school today and have fun with my friends?”. The reality is we don’t know and can’t predict what will really happen.
Voice your own fears and anxiety. For example, “I’m doing a presentation at work today and I’m feeling kind of scared. I’m worried I might mess it up, but I know I have prepared for it and I will give it my best shot.”
7. Get professional help
Start with your GP who can refer you to psychology services such as counselling. Having individual attention from a trained professional with experience in evidence-based strategies can be hugely beneficial and can fast-track your child’s progress.
Managing anxiety in children successfully
The idea is not to try to get rid of anxiety altogether, but to help our children gain skills to manage difficult emotions so they can lead fulfilling and functional lives.
For more resources, the Brave Program is available free and can be done at home with your child or teenager.
In Australia, the National Mental Health Commission has developed the National Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy, which considers the mental health and wellbeing outcomes for children from birth to 12 years of age, as well as their families and communities who nurture them.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact:
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