Dave Smithson, Operations Director of Anxiety UK, tells us more about the symptoms of anxiety in children and provides some useful resources for parents and carers.

Girl on swing

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety can affect any of us, in different ways and at different times, whereas stress can come and go according to changes in the cause (for example, work, relationship or money problems). Anxiety can persist, whether you know the cause or not. It can make you imagine that things in your life are worse than they really are and can prevent you from confronting your fears – you might even think you’re going mad. However, it’s important to realise that anxiety is normal and is part of your body’s protective system.

Everyone has an internal alarm system that’s designed to protect you from danger. It enhances your alertness by giving you a boost of adrenaline. This increases your heart rate and the amount of oxygen going to your limbs (in caveman times, this was designed to help people to either fight, freeze or flee from danger). It’s also the cause of the ‘butterflies in the stomach’ feeling that’s often associated with anxiety. The anxiety response, caused by adrenaline, can be triggered in everyday situations when stress has built up, often unknowingly.

Anxiety in children

Although it is very normal for children and young people to experience emotional problems and personal difficulties of some form while growing up, a proportion of children have anxiety problems that are significant enough to impact on their lives and warrant further help when it starts to interfere with their everyday life.

Although children experience the symptoms of anxiety in much the same way as adults do, children can respond to those symptoms very differently, which leads to problems in diagnosis and difficulties for parents and carers. Often, parents and carers are not sure whether their child is just ‘going through a phase’, in which they will eventually grow out of, or if the problem really constitutes anxiety.

It is, however, worth pointing out that many children have short-lived fears (for example, fear of the dark, animals, insects, or storms) and for most, no action need be taken. It is only when the anxiety that a child experiences becomes so severe that it begins to interfere with the daily activities of childhood (for example, attending school, being away from parents and other significant adults) that it is advisable to seek help.

How does anxiety in children present

Anxieties in children and young people can have a detrimental effect on any child’s overall wellbeing. They may cause physical symptoms such as problems sleeping, feelings of nausea, shaking, sweating, or hyperventilating. 

Some of the common symptoms that may indicate a young child is feeling anxious may not always be clear to them or they may struggle to articulate it. Young children may become irritable, tearful, or clingy. They may struggle to sleep or be awake a lot in the night; bed wetting could be a sign of anxiety and so could bad dreams.

In older children you may experience that they struggle with apparent simply everyday tasks, lack confidence to try new things, and have lots of negative thoughts. Focus and engagement can be impacted, particularly affecting school and academic performance. Recurring anxieties can have a strong impact on a child’s self-esteem.

The cause of their underlying anxieties could stem from a wide range of reasons. Some children will be naturally more anxious than others, while life experiences, major changes at home, family conflict, break up and traumatic incidents or their own personal challenges in life can all play a role in them developing anxiety.

Your child may be a victim of bullying, have an undiagnosed learning difficulty, or it could be because of other external factors which are causing heightened anxiety. Expectations can often be a root of the stress and anxiety, alongside peer pressure and exam stress, so it is important to look out for changes in behaviour, for example, becoming quieter and reclusive may indicate social difficulties at school.

How to manage anxiety in children

An open dialogue is vital for ensuring a child feels they can voice their worries and you’re able to reassure your child that anxiety is common. Talking about your own worries you experienced at their age may help them to understand that it is normal to go through these emotions.

There are a range of ways you can help and support them to manage their anxiety from self-help tools and resources to professional help and talking therapy.

Where to find help for children experiencing anxiety

We recommend the book ‘Helping your Child with Fears and Worries: A self-help guide for parents’ by Professor Cathy Cresswell and Lucy Willetts.

Written by two of the UK’s foremost experts on childhood anxiety; this useful guide will enable you to understand what is causing your child’s worries and to carry out step-by-step practical strategies to help him or her to overcome them.

The book is also the cornerstone of our Helping your Child service that helps you build the skills you need to support your child.  

This programme includes support sessions, guided by an Anxiety UK Approved Therapist and a copy of the book Helping your Child with Fears and Worries. For more information on the programme, please click here

A family membership of Anxiety UK may also help and costs £65 per year for 2 parents and all children including foster children. For the purposes of the Family Membership, a child is defined as a person under the age of 18, in full time education and living in the same household as the parent.

A free factsheet with more detailed information about children and anxiety can be downloaded for free here

For further information

Anxiety UK offers a wide range of support including a national, reduced cost Approved Therapy Service with therapists trained in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, (CBT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), clinical hypnotherapy and counselling all available either face to face or via phone or web. For further information contact the national Anxiety UK helpline on 03444 775 774 or visit: www.anxietyuk.org.uk

Text Support: 07537 416905 | Email Support Service: support@anxietyuk.org.uk | Twitter: @AnxietyUK | Instagram: anxietyukofficial

Dave Smithson – Operations Director, Anxiety UK

Dave is the Operations Director at Anxiety UK. He is responsible for overseeing all operational aspects of service delivery for the user-led charity which provides access to therapy services for people with a range of anxiety, stress, and anxiety-based depression conditions.

His role includes overseeing the clinical governance and quality assurance of all therapy provision, monitoring evaluation outcomes, and reviewing feedback from clients on their user experience, managing commercial and charity partnerships and delivering workplace training and online webinars.