Identifying anxiety in young children

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  Published on Wednesday, 01 February 2017

Identifying anxiety in young children

Library Home  >  Health, Wellbeing & Nutrition
  Published on Wednesday, 01 February 2017
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As children come across new situations and find their way through the world, they are likely to experience some form of anxiety. Babies can often fear loud noises, toddlers might fear separation, and preschool children might be afraid of the dark. Usually, the anxiety they experience comes and goes without lasting too long and the cases are relatively mild. However, for some children the anxiety can be felt more intensely – they might see the world as a much scarier place or they find it difficult to get their anxious feelings under control.

Unfortunately anxiety is on the rise, with one in six young Australians currently experiencing an anxiety condition. And when anxiety is experienced young, it can affect children throughout their teenage and adult lives.

Anxiety is part of our natural survival instinct. When faced with a threatening situation our body reacts, preparing us to escape. But high levels of anxiety can reduce a person’s ability to respond and cope with stressful situations, or even manage everyday events. As well as affecting how someone feels, anxiety can affect a person’s thinking and make them feel that a situation is much worse than it actually is.

Different types of anxiety

There are several forms of anxiety in children:

  • Social anxiety: Anxiety in social situations, where they may be the focus of attention or they need to interact with people. They might avoid social situations, have difficulty joining into activities, or be shy and withdrawn.
  • Separation anxiety: Anxiety over being separated from primary caregivers. They might cry and protest when being separated, or refuse to go to child care or school.
  • Generalised anxiety: Anxiety over a range of everyday things. They might need constant reassurance, worry about school achievements, be afraid of new situations, or feel the need to get everything perfect.

Identifying anxiety

Anxiety might be missed if a child is quiet, meaning they don’t always get the support they need. So, how do you tell if a young child is anxious? Here are a few of the symptoms:

  • Physical symptoms: heart racing, muscle tension, sweating, feeling of choking, rapid breathing, restlessness or being easily startled, pins and needles in arms and legs. Recurring headaches or stomach aches, fatigue, sleeping difficulties.
  • Behavioural symptoms: tantrums, shyness, withdrawing from family and friends, avoiding particular situations, clinging to parents, negativity, seeking reassurance, is scared of the dark, prefers to watch rather than having a go, can’t go to sleep alone.

What can you do?

Talk. Help your child to talk about their anxiety and how it makes them feel.

Teach. Explain the physical process to them to normalize what they are feeling.

Recognise. Acknowledge the emotion when it happens and help them to identify the feelings – asking your child to show you on their body where they feel it most can help.

Face fears. Avoidance isn't a solution, in fact it tends to make it worse. Help your child to face their worries and support them with strategies to help them grow from the experience. Avoid taking over when they ask you to do something for them, but instead support them in doing it alongside you.

Role model. Manage your own anxiety, modelling to your child how to react and showing them it is possible to calmly manage a difficult situation.

Be healthy. Ensure your child gets plenty of regular exercise, sufficient sleep and eats a healthy diet and they will be better equipped to handle fears and worries.

Be available. Make sure your child knows they can always come to you if they are feeling anxious or worried, or need support.

Have routine. Some children can become anxious when they don’t know what is happening, so having a simple routine that everyone is aware of can help. Have a calendar on the wall for older children, or use regular cues for younger children – such as always blowing an extra kiss goodbye at daycare – to make them feel in control.

Stay calm. Calm conversations will always have better results. Even if you are worried or frustrated, your calm approach will dissipate any tension.

Work together. Anxious children can easily feel overwhelmed, but you can help by problem solving their worries together.

Get help. If you are concerned that your child might be suffering from an anxiety disorder, or you feel that the anxiety is stopping them enjoying things in life visit your GP.

Places that can help:

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Tuesday, 02 February 2021

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