What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of unease such as fear or worry. It is one of the body’s natural responses to stress, and affects our thoughts, feelings, body and behaviour. Anxiety activates the body’s fight-flight-freeze response. This means that the body prepares to either confront, escape or freeze in the face of a perceived threat.
Most of us will experience anxiety; it is a normal human response to be anxious in certain situations. However, for some people anxiety can begin to affect their wellbeing and they need support.
Anxiety in children
For children and young people in particular, some level of anxiety is normal as they grow up and learn to navigate the world. It helps them to cope with potential threats, and understand how they feel about different situations they encounter. For example, from the age of around 6 months to 3 years it is very common for young children have separation anxiety; they may become clingy and cry when separated from their parents and carers. This is a normal stage in a child’s development and usually stops in time.
Difficulties can arise when normal levels of anxiety become more severe and start impacting a child’s everyday life. Anxiety can become a problem when:
- it is constant, intense, and overwhelming
- it occurs in response to no real threat, or the threat is exaggerated
- it interferes with someone’s daily life and stops them doing things they want to.
Severe anxiety can harm children’s mental and emotional wellbeing, affecting their self-esteem and confidence. They may become withdrawn and go to great lengths to avoid things or situations that make them feel anxious.
Signs of Anxiety
Anxiety can present in different forms in children and young people. When young children feel anxious, they cannot always understand or express what they are feeling but you may notice your child:
- becomes irritable, tearful or clingy
- has difficulty sleeping
- wakes in the night
- starts wetting the bed
- has bad dreams
When older children experience anxiety it may manifest in the form of avoidant behaviours. They may:
- avoid everyday activities such as seeing friends, going out in public
- have difficulty concentrating
- withdrawal from social activities
- seem tired, fidgety or absent-minded
- have angry outbursts
- have trouble eating or sleeping
- not be completing tasks or homework
- be constantly seeking reassurance
- have frequent headaches, stomach aches, etc.
- be avoiding difficult situations, such as tests or assessments
- have a lot of negative thoughts, or keep thinking bad things are going to happen
How to support an anxious child
If a child is experiencing anxiety, there are things parents and carers can do to help.
Talk to your child about their worries or anxiety. Reassure them and show them you understand how they feel.
Teach your child to recognise the signs of anxiety in themselves. Physical signs of anxiety include:
- your heart beating faster
- dry throat
- churning stomach
- feeling sick or dizzy
- feeling hot and sweaty
- feeling strange like you are not really there
- unable to think straight
Children of all ages find routine reassuring, so try to stick to regular daily routines where possible. If you know a change, for example a house move, is coming up. Prepare your child about what will be happening and why.
Distraction can help for young children, for example if they are anxious about going to school, play a game on the journey.
Focus on what helps. Instead of trying to reassure a child that nothing bad will happen, focus on what helped them cope when they faced a similar situation. Help a child think through what they have learned about their fears and about themselves. Did their worry come true? Did they cope?
Encourage your child to be physically active – exercise can help reduce anxiety
Children with Special Educational Needs and Anxiety
Anxiety can be missed in children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) as the differences observed can be assumed to be part of their diagnosis, for example, Autism or ADHD.
Children with SEN may feel anxious because:
- They have more difficulty with learning or are further behind with than their peers
- They are struggling socially, for example, feeling overwhelmed in busy, social places
- They may feel different and that they don’t fit in
The following tips to help your SEN child with anxiety should considered in addition to those in the above section:
- Notice when your child seems more anxious, for example a child with Autism may rock or flap their hands.
- Anxiety can be greater when children feel bad about themselves:
- Give your child some responsibility, for example, a manageable task to do. This will make them feel useful and could boost their confidence
- Encourage independence, this gives your child the message that you know they are capable
- Encourage your child to engage in a hobby or special interest
- Visualisation – visual reminders of how to regulate anxiety, can help. These could be photos or pictures of a special thing, place or person.
- Social stories can be useful in helping children understand and respond to anxiety and can provide or remind children of coping strategies or techniques.
When to seek help for your child
If your child’s anxiety is severe, persists ad interferes with their everyday life, it is good idea to get some help:
- Talk to your GP
- Talk to your child’s school, they may be able to support them in school by providing a calm space, for example, or providing activities to promote self-esteem. They may also be able to refer your child to other services that could help, such as art or play therapy
- Children aged 11 to 18 can access Kooth – a free online counselling service or The Marketplace Leeds, a drop in centre for young people offering advice and counselling on a range of subjects affecting young people
It can be stressful and worrying supporting a child or young person with anxiety. It’s important that you:
- Don’t struggle alone – talk to someone about it. Look at the support you have and what else is available in your local area. This could be a nursery/school, a friend, another parent in a similar situation, a parent’s group
- Ask for help if you need it – many people go on struggling with very difficult situations because they feel they should be able to cope.
- Take time for yourself – getting some rest or taking a bit of time off can be beneficial even if it is only for a short time such as having a bath or going for a walk.
- Don’t blame yourself – you are doing the best you can
- Talk to your GP if you need help and support – if you feel you are not coping speak to your GP about what support they can offer
Additional support from Leeds Mencap
Speak to other parents with children with SEN and disabilities on our closed Facebook group.
Follow us on Facebook to hear about our upcoming events.
Check out the rest of our Family Support offer. We have:
- Weekly Chats and Tots coffee morning
- Family Support workers who can offer advice, signposting and support
- Lots of tips and resources about anxiety in our Member’s Area on our website
Additional support and Resources
This information is not affiliated with Leeds MENCAP.
Read about activities aimed at children to reduce anxiety and worry here Calm zone | Childline
Watch a video about children’s anxiety and tips for parents here Place2Be: Parenting Smart: My child is anxious
Read about tips to reduce separation anxiety here rebuild-and-recover-separation-anxiety-tips-and-guidance.pdf (mentallyhealthyschools.org.uk)
Read the parent’s guide to looking after yourself here – Parents’ Guide to Looking After Your Mental Health | YoungMinds
Watch a selection of videos about children and anxiety here – Anxiety Videos for Parents and Carers | Nip in the Bud