Childhood is supposed to be a carefree time, but increasingly, it’s anything but. According to a recent survey by the National Association of Head Teachers, one in five children will experience a mental health problem before the age of 11, and anxiety is one of the most common.
What causes anxiety in children?
There are many reasons why children might suffer from anxiety. Some struggle with separation anxiety, and have a hard time settling into school where they’re away from their parents. Some are unsettled by problems at home, such as a divorce or bereavement. But for many, anxiety is triggered by the pressures they’re under at school.
‘These days, there is a growing focus in academic achievement, at the expense of physical and mental health, good social relationships, and being able to communicate well,’ explains David Goodban, head of the Children's and Young People's Programme at the Mental Health Foundation. ‘It’s questionable whether this is a good thing, or whether we should be focusing more on growing happy and well-adjusted children.’
Symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety can provoke a wide range of symptoms in children, both physical and mental. Physical symptoms can include:
- Rapid breathing
- A fast heart rate
- Feeling shaky
- Nausea and stomach cramps
- Sleep problems
- Loss of appetite
Mental symptoms include:
- Feeling scared, panicky, embarrassed or ashamed
- A lack of confidence
- Concentration problems
- Excessive worrying
- Angry or tearful outbursts
The difficulty for parents is that children can find it hard to understand and talk about how they’re feeling. ‘Parents need to not just rely on verbal communication to pick up on how their child is feeling, but to look for signs such as restlessness, irritability, or a reluctance to take part in activities they’ve previously enjoyed,’ David explains.
For example, a child who is anxious about going to school might complain of frequent stomach aches or headaches in an attempt to be allowed to stay at home.
Helping your child with anxiety
If you suspect your child is suffering from anxiety, the first step is to talk to them about it and try to encourage them to open up. The physical symptoms of anxiety can be very alarming for children; they might think they’re seriously ill or even dying. Explaining to them that what is happening to their body is a response to their intense feelings can be hugely reassuring and immediately help them feel less stressed and worried.
You can also equip them with techniques for managing their anxiety. These could include:
Teaching them some basic mindfulness techniques – for example, encouraging them to sit quietly in the garden and focus all their attention on the sounds they can hear. If their mind starts to wander, remind them to draw it back to the present moment.
Giving them a worry book, where they can write down their concerns to help get them out of their head.
Helping them to imagine their worst case scenarios and work out how they would deal with the situation if it arose.
Encouraging them to draw, colour, knit or do jigsaws to help them focus on the here and now.
Making sure they get regular exercise and fresh air, as this will help to reduce the levels of stress hormones.
Teaching them that anxiety is like a wave; if they ride it out, it will peak and then recede.
If your child’s anxiety is focused on school, it’s helpful to talk to their teacher – with their permission – about how they’re feeling. They may be able to help, for example by giving them extra help with a particular subject that they’re struggling with.
Books about anxiety for children
Professional help for kids' anxiety
If, despite your best efforts, your child is finding it hard to manage their anxiety, it’s a good idea to get some professional help. Generally, your first port of call will be your GP – you can either go with your child, or see the doctor alone initially to discuss your concerns. They may adopt a ‘wait and watch’ approach to see if your child’s anxiety gets better on its own, or refer them to youth counselling services or Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), where they can access specialist support such as psychiatry and psychotherapy.
You can also speak to your child’s school about their difficulties. ‘They can help the child manage their difficulty,’ says David. ‘If your child is under CAMHS, the school will need to know about that so the two organisations can communicate about the treatment plan.’
All schools have special educational needs coordinators (SENCO) and school nurses who can provide advice and support. If it’s appropriate, they can arrange for your child to see an educational psychologist or counsellor. It’s vital to speak to the school if your child’s anxiety is stopping them from attending: in this case, Education Welfare Services will be involved in formulating a plan to make sure they’re not missing out on learning.
Some children also find it helpful to speak to a helpline such as Childline, where they can offload their concerns to a neutral person.
Although it can be frightening to accept that your child needs professional help, anxiety often responds very well to medication, talking therapies or a combination of both, and the right support could prevent their condition getting worse in the future.