It's normal for children to occasionally feel worried or anxious – such as when they start school or move to a new town. But for some children, anxiety can have an impact on how they think, behave and function every day.
Research shows almost 7% of Australian children aged 4-11 struggle with clinical symptoms of anxiety.
We asked RAQ Clinical Supervisor Karen Marshall to share some of the signs of anxiety in children, as well as some tips to help them manage it.
Signs of Anxiety in Children
Not everyone who has anxiety will experience the same symptoms, but these are some of the most common anxiety symptoms in children:
- Crying often
- Not eating properly
- Using the toilet often
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritability and outbursts
- Rapid breathing or heartbeat
- Being tired for no real season
- Restlessness, fidgeting, or shakiness
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Complaining of tummy aches and feeling unwell
- Constantly worrying or having negative thoughts
- Being clingy or worrying about parental abandonment
- Regression (denying ability to do tasks previously mastered).
It’s important to keep an eye out for these symptoms if you’re worried your child is having a hard time.
“Noticing children’s behaviours is a way to pick up on cues that children may be anxious, whether the child verbalises their anxiety or not,” Karen explains.
Causes of Anxiety in Children
Anxiety can develop in people of all ages for many different reasons. Some common causes for anxiety in children might include:
- Abuse or neglect
- Lack of predictable routine
- Frequently moving house or school
- The death of a close relative or friend
- School-related issues like exams or bullying
- Living with adults who are stressed or anxious
- Conflict or tension between parents/caregivers
- Becoming seriously ill or getting injured in an accident
- Overemphasis on expected achievement (whether external or internal pressure).
“Friction or conflict between parents/caregivers can contribute considerably to anxiety in children,” says Karen. “Parents seeking their own support and reducing conflict can be best for reducing children’s anxiety around these matters.”
How to Support a Child Struggling with Anxiety
Karen offers a few tips to help your child cope with their anxiety and get through stressful situations.
Ask them how they’re feeling
If you notice your child is experiencing some symptoms of anxiety, confront the issue and ask them how they’re feeling.
“Talk to them calmly,” says Karen. “Help them to externalise the worry. For example, supporting them to draw their worry can be helpful.”
Listen with empathy and understanding, and avoid using invalidating phrases like stop being such a baby or there’s nothing to worry about. These can make your child feel unsupported and shameful about their anxious thoughts, which can make the anxiety even worse.
“It’s important that parents don’t minimise the child’s feelings,” Karen explains.
Your child is entitled to their feelings, and it’s your job to help them find healthy ways to cope when they get overwhelmed.
Kids pick up signals from adults. By showing calmness in stressful situations, you can model examples of healthy coping.
“Modelling self-care strategies to children is one important way a parent can support a child who is anxious,” Karen explains.
“For example, when driving in traffic with children and fearing you’re late for an appointment, take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Say to your children wow, this traffic is bad, but there’s nothing we can do about it. So let’s sing a song or talk about our favorite holiday/food/animal.”
Focus on their strengths
Children crave positive reinforcement from their parents/carers. Helping your child recognise their strengths can boost their self-esteem and help them remember when they’ve made it through tough times in the past.
“For example, if they’re worried about meeting new friends at a new school, remind them of the things that make them a good friend. Encourage them to smile to let people know they’re friendly,” suggests Karen.
Talk to their teacher
“Speaking to a child’s teacher or other key adults in a child’s life can give clarity and provide insight,” explains Karen.
“For example, some children don’t like to tell their parents they’re being bullied or having an unhappy time in their friendship groups, as many children see themselves as the cause of this rather than the victim. A teacher or other adult may be able to provide information that can be helpful.”
Be patient with them
Anxiety can sometimes impact a child’s behaviour. If your anxious child is misbehaving, try to have some understanding and keep things in perspective.
“It’s important to be open to seeing challenging behavior in children as an expression of anxiety or even trauma, and approach management of this behavior with calm and compassion,” says Karen.
“The support of a professional is always helpful to determine the cause of certain behaviors.”
Seek professional health
It's a good idea to seek professional help or reassurance yourself if your child is constantly anxious and it’s not getting better and/or impacting their school or family life.
“Anxiety can lead to habitual behaviors. Contacting a professional for support can be useful in this case,” Karen explains. “Psychologists and counsellors who work with children will often recommend specific strategies accompanied by reward charts to support the child to break these habits.”
And don’t forget to look after yourself, too.
“Adults looking after their own wellbeing, modelling good strategies around their own anxiety, and seeking help early if needed can be so important for the mental health of their children,” says Karen.
You can learn about our counselling services here, or call 1300 364 277 to book an appointment in person, over the phone, or via Zoom video.
Read about the most common types of anxiety in this blog post.