Childhood anxiety – a guide for parents!

It is completely normal for children to feel worried from time to time. There are many challenges and new experiences they have to face as they grow and develop, from starting school and taking exams, to going to birthday parties and attending after-school activities.

If you are concerned about the level of worry that your child is experiencing, it is important to take the time to explain the concept of anxiety to them, so that your child can understand what is happening to them, why it is happening and where they can turn during these moments.

It is also important that you are aware of the signs of anxiety and know what to do to help your child so that you can give them the right level of support to manage their anxious thoughts and feelings.

What are the signs of childhood anxiety?

When a child is experiencing anxiety, they may let you know that they are experiencing some of the following symptoms:

  • Their heart beating faster and their breathing quickening
  • Feeling sick or having butterflies in their stomach
  • Being unable to think clearly
  • Feeling sweaty

As your child may not tell you that they feel anxious, some common warning signs to look out for include:

  • Trying to avoid going to certain places or being in certain places
  • Not being able to fall asleep, and being overly tired as a result
  • Starting to wet the bed or have bad dreams
  • Becoming more irritable, tearful or angry
  • Becoming more clingy

Explaining anxiety to your child

If your child is anxious, explain to them what is happening and why, as the feelings can be very frightening to experience if a child doesn’t understand them.  

Why do we get anxious? Let them know that when we see something scary, our brain sends instructions to our body to move away fast. For example, if we saw a tiger on the street, our brain would tell our body to run away from the danger.

What are the signs our body is anxious? At that moment, our body starts to pump more blood to our muscles, heart and lungs, which are the parts of our body we need for moving quickly. This causes our heart to beat faster and our breathing to quicken. As our body focuses on getting ready to move fast, it pays less attention to other parts we don’t need in that moment. We stop digesting food, which can leave us feeling sick or even being sick, and we stop thinking clearly, as our brain focuses on moving rather than thinking.

Why do people feel like this? Explain to your child that these feelings can be very useful in dangerous situations as they allow us to react and get away quickly. However, let them know that people sometimes feel like this in times and places that aren’t dangerous such as at school, after-school clubs or birthday parties. This can cause us to try and avoid these situations when we don’t need to.

What should we do when we feel anxious? Let your child know that they can always talk to you or another parent, carer or teacher if they ever feel this way – they don’t have to struggle on their own.

Helping your child when they become anxious

When your child becomes worried, listen to why they feel this way. If they are thinking about their next day in school, they may be concerned that something bad will happen during a lesson or on the playground. Or if they are worried about an upcoming birthday party, they may be troubled by thoughts that they won’t make any friends or have anyone to play with.

Re-explain to them that they have these anxious feelings because our bodies are made to protect us from dangers, but they are seeing dangers where they don’t necessarily exist.  Express confidence in your child, and let them know that you think they will be great in the situation they are worried about. Give them examples of times they have done well in the past. For example, remind them of the time they attended a birthday party, instantly got involved in games and came away having made a lot of new friends.

Where possible, don’t let your child avoid the situations that they are anxious about as this will simply reinforce their negative connotations of the experience. By encouraging them to see past their worries, they have the opportunity to discover that they can actually cope.

It is also important to remember that anxiety is treatable and the earlier a child receives the correct support, the easier it will be for them to manage and ultimately recover from their anxiety. One form of therapy that can be particularly useful is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which can provide children with a ‘toolbox’ of strategies they can use to tackle their worries. Family therapy can also be a valuable exercise, as it gives everyone the chance to come together and utilise each person’s strengths to help the child.

It is important to note that many people believe that anxiety is a phase. However, it can grow, so it is important to provide your child with access to the help and support that they need to tackle their worries and prevent them from having a larger impact on their health and wellbeing.

By Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centre Oxford