Is my child's anxiety normal?
As a parent, the last thing you would want is for your child to hurt or have a bad experience. However, anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions affecting over 15% of children and adolescents (Beesdo et al 2009). One of the main concerns regarding children and anxiety is that since the child may quiet and most parents may not recognise that their child may be suffering. Even when they realise there might be a problem some parents may think that their child will ‘grow out of it’. This may be the case for few, but for the majority anxiety will creep into teenage years and even adulthood if left untreated. The good news is, there are numerous different ways you can help manage your child’s anxiety and support them in the process.
Untreated anxiety in children can quite often lead to depression and a decrease in quality of life. Some anxiety in children is normal and can be expected, especially if the child is starting a new nursery/school or in an environment different from what they are used to, such as moving to a different area. Typically, bouts of anxiety include nervousness and a feeling of unease. This should soon clear up when the child feels more comfortable and gettings used to the new environment. If the anxiety persist and the child starts not being able to do the things they were able to do before or they are very distressed you should seek help from your GP or pediatrician.
Your child may too young to recognise why they are feeling the way that they are, and may not be able to tell you. However, there are some signs you can look out for in your child. These include:
Difficulty concentrating, not being able to focus on a task for very long - even if they enjoy the task at hand. If severe, this can impact their education and school life.
Not sleeping with ease or waking during the night. This can be due to nightmares, intrusive thoughts, ‘not being able to turn their brain off’.
Changes in appetite, including losing their appetite or eating too much.
Prone to outbursts and being more irritable than usual. Not being in control when they are angry.
Constantly worrying and having negative thoughts. Focusing on a particular negative thing that happened in the past and overthinking it.
Complaints of stomach aches and feeling generally unwell. Feeling tense and fidgety and using the toilet more than usual.
Crying more than usual and feeling generally clingy even when other children in the same situation are okay.
There is usually not one reason in particular why a child may develop an anxiety disorder, however ‘separation anxiety’ (see below) is quite common in younger children. Older children tend to worry about school performance, relationships, friendships, appearance, weight, puberty and health. There are a few common types of anxiety that can stem from childhood these include -
A particular fear: A specific fear of something (such as animals, situations or school) can easily develop into a phobia (an irrational intense fear of something) which impacts day to day life. Though the fear may seem illogical to an adult, as a child it can seem real and extremely frightening.
Separation anxiety: Separation anxiety is worrying about not being with their parent or carer. This can make school and socialising overwhelming if their parent is not present. Separation anxiety can start from six months of age however ongoing separation anxiety can usually be due to feeling insecure, such as if there is a major change going on at home.
School-based anxiety: Some children can feel more anxious that others when starting school. This nervousness can come from school in general, schoolwork, friendships, feeling different from others or bullying. Children may not always speak about their worries and concerns with you. Instead, they may complain of stomach aches and feeling unwell in order to avoid attending school.
Social anxiety: Social anxiety is an intense fear for social situations. The young person fears they might be embarrased, rejected or bullied at gatherings. It may extend to family gatherings and it may result in the young person not wanting to go to school, go out in public or refusing to attend any social gatherings. Being shy is usual in young children and teenagers, however social anxiety can make simple errands, such as going to the shop, seem impossible and terrifying. Children with social anxiety disorder tend to think they will do something embarrassing or be humiliated. Social anxiety disorder is more common in older children after they have reached puberty.
Generalised anxiety disorder: It is common for young children to have fears and worries however when these thoughts won’t go away, it can lead to generalised anxiety disorder. Generalised anxiety disorder is a long-term condition in mainly teenagers and adults. This is normally characterised by severe anxiety that is not attached to anything in particular. It is a feeling of constant anxiety without a particular trigger or to all and any triggers. Everything becomes a source of anxiety.
Less common anxiety disorders: Post traumatic stress disorder and Obsessive compulsive disorder can sometimes affect children however both are more commonly found in teenagers and adults. Children are also less prone to panic attacks, but is still a possibility.
Any anxiety can hugely impact a child’s life, from family relationships to their education. You should seek support from a professional if you feel your child:
- Is not getting better no matter what you try
- You think it may be slowing their development and learning or impacting relationships
- They are feeling anxious frequently and are distressed by their anxiety
Anxiety in children is typically treated with cognitive behavioural therapy which challenges your child’s worrying thoughts. Other counselling is also available through your GP or privately. Medication is also available for severe anxiety disorders however is not typically recommended for young children.
There are a few things you can do to help ease your child’s anxiety, including:
Pay attention to your child’s feelings
Stay calm when your child becomes anxious about a situation or event
Recognise and praise small accomplishments such as socialising
Don’t punish your child for making mistakes or a lack of progress due to their anxiety
Try to maintain a routine
Practise mindfulness with your child, allowing them to focus on the present moment should decrease the likelihood of them dwelling on a past event for too long
- Teach your child relaxation techniques such as deep breathing when they are feeling particularly anxious
- Do not make them feel as if they are not normal for experiencing anxiety
- Never say things like 'grow up', 'don't be silly' or 'I don’t understand why you’re nervous, it’s only…”
Having an anxiety disorder as an adult is bad enough, having one as a child and not being able to fully understand why you are feeling the way you are is even more difficult. Listen to child when they express their feelings and assure them that everything will be okay. Anxiety is a difficult road, but with your support and care, they will get better!