Anxiety in Children
Anxious behaviours are common in children. These behaviours allows children to learn to cope with a range of worries about past experiences or fearful thoughts about the future. Some normal anxieties at different ages include loud noises (babies), darkness (pre-schoolers), supernatural forces, criticism or failure (school age children or adolescents).
Children with anxiety feel anxious more easily, more often and more intensely than other children. There is a concerning increase in the number of children of all ages with symptoms of anxiety. Research shows that anxiety can affect 2-9% of adolescents. About half of adults with anxiety experienced their first symptoms before the age of 11. Anxiety can stop children participating in school or social activities. It can interfere with their ability to do things other children can do easily and it can create fears and worries out of proportion to the circumstance.
The symptoms of anxiety vary by age, they are not obvious and can be hard for parents to identify. Anxiety can be specific (e.g. specific phobia to spiders) or generalised. Selective mutism can be a form of anxiety. Anxiety can occur after a highly distressing event. There are a number of risk factors which make children more vulnerable to anxiety. These include genetics (anxiety disorders can run in families), temperament style (shyness and inhibition), certain parenting styles and traumatic life experiences.
Some common symptoms of anxiety include:
Emotional changes – persistent worries, excessive fears, increased irritability
Cognitive changes – poor concentration and attention, easily distracted
Behavioural changes – avoidance of feared situations, social isolation and withdrawal (e.g. friends and parties), excessive shyness, inability to relax, problems with work, social or family life
Physical changes – poor sleep, muscle tension, body complaints with no other causes (e.g. tummy aches)
It is important to see seek professional help about anxiety if you feel your child’s anxiety is stopping him or her from doing the things he or she wants to do. If your child’s anxious behaviour appear out of proportion compared to other children of the same age or if you feel your child is overly distressed and very slow to calm down.
There are many ways to support your child if they have anxiety. Please talk to your health professional about individual anxiety strategies. It is best to acknowledge it, do not dismiss or ignore it. Encourage (but not push) his or her participation in the stressful situation and praise your child for his or her achievements and improvements in the stressful situation and avoid criticizing fear. Watch for the signs of anxiety and then intervene. Do not use the labels “shy” or anxious.” Relaxation is very important and can include breathing exercises. Mindfulness exercises can be used by psychologists and even in school or age specific apps. There are several online programs available for support in managing anxiety.
Professional support for anxiety in children can be provided by your child’s school counsellor or your child’s GP or paediatrician. Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) and Youth Beyond Blue (1300 224 636) can also provide further information.