Anxiety in Children
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear that is experienced as a combination of physical sensations, thoughts and feelings.
All children can feel worried sometimes, and this is normal.
Anxiety becomes a problem when your child’s life is seriously impacted by it and feels it is overwhelming, distressing or unmanageable experience. If this kind of worrying goes on for a long time, it can leave a young person feeling exhausted and isolated, and limit the things they feel are able to do.
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
Anxiety affects thoughts, feelings as well as the physical body. Anxiety can lead to different behaviours. Your child may also behave differently, including turning to certain coping behaviours to try to avoid or manage their anxiety.
- a racing heart
- breathing very quickly, shallow breathing or feeling unable to breathe
- feeling sick
- dry mouth
- tense muscles
- wobbly legs
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), diarrhoea or needing to pee more than usual
- getting very hot
Thoughts and feelings:
- becoming very quiet and withdrawing into themselves
- short tempered
- struggle to think about other things
- preoccupied by upsetting, scary or negative thoughts
- nervous, on edge, panicky or frightened
- overwhelmed or out of control
- full of dread or an impending sense of doom
- alert to loud noises, bright lights and smells
- worrying about being unable to cope with daily things like school, friendships and being in groups or social situations
- worrying so much that it is difficult to concentrate and/or sleep
Self-medicating and coping behaviours:
- withdrawing or isolating
- not wanting to go to school
- not wanting to see friends or family members
- be away from parents
- try new things
- repeating certain behaviours, actions or rituals (often called ‘obsessive compulsive behaviours’)
- eating more or less than usual
How to help your child in an anxious moment
When your child is in the middle of a very anxious moment, they may feel frightened, agitated or worried and may even fear they may go into the feelings of a panic attack.
The important thing to do in the moment is to help them calm down and feel safe.
These strategies can help:
- Breathe slowly and deeply together You can count slowly for three as you breathe in, and then three as you breathe out. If this is too much, try starting with shorter counts. If it works for them, gradually encourage your child to breathe out for one or two counts longer than they breathe in, as this can help their body relax.
- Talk about how you feel with someone they trust Ask your child what it feels like in their mind and body, and what things make them feel that way. It can be tempting to dismiss their worries because you want to reassure them, but it’s important to empathise with their experience and validate their feelings.
- Reassure them the feelings will pass Perhaps emotions and the feelings can be described as something transient such as a passing fluffy cloud or describe it as a wave that they can ride or surf until it peaks, breaks and gets smaller.
- Help your child to recognise early signs that tell them they’re getting anxious They can then, know when to ask for help or help themselves.
- Focusing on the here and now using the five senses (mindfulness) Spend some time concentrating on things you can see, touch and feel to help you stay in the moment. Look around you and slowly try to find:
- 5 things you can see
- 4 things you can touch and feel
- 3 things you can hear
- 2 things you smell
- 1 thing you can taste
- 5 things you can see
- Positive Mood Jar It is often easy to concentrate on negative thoughts and feelings which in can in turn lead to anxiety. It can be very helpful to concentrate on positive thoughts.
- Scrapbook or journal Writing or drawing regularly in a journal or scrapbook can help your child to have a safe space to work thoughts or feeling through. Often a positive journal can help and then create another for thoughts and emotions that are more troublesome.
Keeping a journal can help to:
- let feelings out
- see what you’ve written and think about things differently
- learn more about what makes you anxious and what helps
- write or draw new ways to cope or different things to do.
- let feelings out
- Soothing box Find a bag or container. Create a soothing box and put in items that can help your child feel soothed and take their minds away from stress and anxiety. Perhaps put in the box things to touch, or play with such as a fidget toy, things to look at, such as photos of friends, family or pets, pop in something that may smell nice, such as a perfume or aftershave from a parent or lavender oil, perhaps some music may help or ear plugs to reduce external noise, something that tastes great. We are using the different senses to help the mind concentrate away from negative thoughts.
- Sit with your child and offer calm physical reassurance Seeing you and knowing you are nearby may help. If your child allows you too, holding your hand or having a cuddle if it’s possible, may be soothing.
- Distract anxious thoughts by encouraging your child to do something that helps them to feel calmer This could be running, walking, playing football, dancing, listening to music, painting, drawing or colouring-in, baking, watching a favourite film or reading a favourite book.
Remember that everyone is different, and that over time you and your child can work together to find the things that work best for them in these moments.
If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.
Sign up for a free Childline locker (real name or email address not needed) to use their free 1-2-1 counsellor chat and email support service.
Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.
Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.
Phone: 0800 1111
MeeTwo is a free app for teenagers (11+) providing resources and a fully-moderated community where you can share your problems, get support and help other people too.
Can be downloaded from Google Play or App Store.
YoungMinds Crisis Messenger
YoungMinds provides free, 24/7 text support for young people across the UK experiencing a mental health crisis.
All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors.
Texts are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus.
Texts can be anonymous, but if the volunteer believes you are at immediate risk of harm, they may share your details with people who can provide support.
Text: YM to 85258
Opening times: 24/7
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