How to spot signs of anxiety in children
Learn about the warning signs of worry and stress in kids so that you can step in to offer support
Anxiety is simply an activation in our nervous system that we also call the fight or flight response. It warns us against imminent physical danger, such as a car coming towards you as you are crossing the road, or when perceived psychological danger, such as a big exam, is approaching.
Some childhood anxieties can be completely age-appropriate. For example, very young children, under three years old, may have separation anxiety – they may cry when separated from their parents or carer, and become clingy. Some children, particularly preschoolers, may develop fears such as being scared of the dark, or not wanting to use the toilet seat. And school-aged children may feel anxious, particularly if they are in a new situation or a new environment – such as when starting at a new school, or before a presentation or exam. These are all part of their normal daily life, and it’s OK to feel this way.
But, anxiety becomes a problem for children when it starts to get in the way of their everyday life. This might present as them refusing to go to school, or starting to experience psychosomatic symptoms like headaches and stomach aches, or beginning to avoid big events.
You may notice some changes in your child’s behaviours recently, and are wondering whether your child is experiencing anxiety or not. You might be asking what the signs of anxiety in children are, and how can you support them? Here, we explore some common signs to watch out for.
1. Excessive anxiety and worry
Your child may lack the confidence to try new things or seem unable to face simple, everyday challenges. If this is the case, and you know a change such as a house move is coming up, prepare your child by talking to them about what is going to happen and why.
2. Inability to control fear or worry
Having a lot of negative thoughts, or constantly thinking that bad things are going to happen to them, starting to avoid everyday activities, and having overly high expectations for their schoolwork, homework, and sports performance can be signs that they’re not able to control their worries. Try not to become overprotective or anxious yourself. Practise simple relaxation techniques with your child, such as taking three deep, slow breaths – breathing in for a count of three, and out for three.
Constantly fidgeting or squirming can be an external sign of anxiety. Having some sensory or fidget toys may help your child to calm their minds, and redirect their energy, and there are plenty of different options available to purchase easily online.
4. Agitation and irritability
Anxious children may become irritable, tearful, or clingy – or have angry outbursts, including tantrums and crying. Reassure them and show them that you understand how they feel. As well as talking to your child about their worries and anxiety, it’s important to help them find solutions. Teach your child to recognise signs of anxiety in themselves.
5. Sleep disruption
Having difficulty sleeping, waking in the night, starting to wet the bed, having bad dreams, and difficulty settling down for bed can all be signals of anxiety. Children of all ages find routines reassuring, so try to stick to regular daily routines where possible. Worry jars are particularly helpful for children, where they can write down on paper anything that’s worrying them, and put these thoughts into a jar. Pintrest has a lot of creative ideas on this. Then you go through the papers/worries together at the end of the day or week.
6. Somatic symptoms
Anxiety can often come with physical, somatic symptoms, such as headaches, stomach aches, and muscle tension. If your child is old enough, it may help to explain the physical effects anxiety has on our bodies. It could also be useful to describe anxiety as being like a wave that builds up, and then ebbs away again.
Refusing to go to school, meltdowns before school about minor things such as clothing, hair, or shoes, and meltdowns after school about homework are things to watch out for. Encourage your child to manage their anxiety and ask for help when they need it. If your child is anxious because of distressing events, such as a bereavement or separation, look for books or films that will help them to understand their emotions.
If your child’s anxiety is severe, persists, and interferes with their everyday life, it’s a good idea to get some help. A visit to a GP is a good place to start. If your child’s anxiety is affecting their school life, it would be worth talking to their school as well. Parents and carers can get help and advice about children’s mental health from Young Minds’ free parent helpline on 0808 802 5544, from Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 4pm.
For more information about anxiety, visit Counselling Directory.