Anxiety

Anxiety is part of our survival instinct. When we’re faced with a threatening situation, our brains and bodies respond by kicking into safety mode. Our adrenalin starts pumping, helping us get ready to escape the danger.

However some people, including children, react more quickly or intensely to situations they find threatening, or find it harder to get their anxious feelings under control. Some kids also perceive the world to be scarier or more dangerous than others. 

What is ‘normal’ anxiety in kids?

Fearful and anxious behaviour is common in children – especially as they come across new situations and experiences. Most children learn to cope with different fears and worries.

However, they may need some extra support when:

  • they feel anxious more than other children of a similar age
  • anxiety stops them participating in activities at school or socially
  • anxiety interferes with their ability to do things that other children their age can do
  • their fears and worries seem out of proportion to the issues in their life.

How anxiety affects children

As well as affecting how kids feel, anxiety can have an effect on their thinking. They perceive the fear or danger they’re worried about to be much greater than it actually is. Thinking about the situation makes them more worried and tense.

Kids experiencing anxiety may come up with their own strategies to try and manage distressing situations. This often involves trying to avoid the situation or having a parent or other adult deal with it for them.

While this works in the short term, avoiding the fearful situation makes it more likely that they’ll feel anxious and be unable to manage it next time. As a result, they can find it harder to cope with everyday stresses at home, school and in social settings.

Anxiety can also result in physical symptoms such as sleeplessness, diarrhoea, stomach aches and headaches (sometimes referred to as somatic complaints). Other symptoms may include irritability, difficulty concentrating and tiredness.

What to look for 

A child with anxiety difficulties may...
  • seek reassurance often

  • avoid situations they feel worried or scared about

  • try to get others to do the things they are worried about

  • tell you they have physical pains

  • dislike taking risks or trying new things

  • have lots of fears

  • get upset easily

  • have lots of worries

You may notice your child...
  • clings to you
  • asks for help with things they can do for themselves
  • doesn’t want to get ready for school 
  • won’t go to sleep without a parent or other adult
  • asks, “will you do it for me?” or “will you tell them for me?” a lot
  • often complains of stomach pains or headaches
  • worries a lot about doing things right
  • prefers to watch others rather than have a go
  •  is scared of the dark, dogs, injections, being alone, germs, tests
  • often cries over small things
  • complains about being picked on a lot 
  • always sees the dangerous or negative side of things

Types of anxiety

The six most common anxiety disorders in primary school-aged children are: 

Phobia

Phobia is diagnosed when particular objects, situations or events such as injections, spiders or heights bring about intense fear and avoidance, even though the real threat of harm is small. 

Social phobia

Social phobia refers to extreme levels of shyness and fears of being seen in a negative light. Children with social phobia avoid social interactions such as talking to new people, speaking up in class or performing in public. They may be highly self-conscious and have difficulty forming friendships.

Generalised anxiety disorder

Generalised anxiety disorder is diagnosed when kids have excessive and unrealistic worries about a broad range of possibilities. They may worry about things that might happen, about their own past behaviour, how good they are at their schoolwork or how popular they are. They often lack confidence and need a lot of reassurance.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may develop following a traumatic event such as being in a serious accident, experiencing a life-threatening event or witnessing extreme violence. Symptoms include changes in sleep patterns, irritability and problems with concentration. Kids with PTSD may experience mental flashbacks and feel like they’re ‘reliving’ the event. They may express or recreate the traumatic event through drawing or playing.

Obsessive compulsive disorder

With obsessive compulsive disorder, the child has persistent unwanted thoughts, often about dirt or germs, or sometimes a need for symmetry. To try to stop the thoughts they repeat a particular action, such as washing their hands or repeated counting. Older kids usually recognise that the thoughts and behaviours don’t make sense even though they’re driven by them.

Separation anxiety disorder

Separation anxiety relates to children’s fear and distress at being away from their main care givers. Young children can lack the ability to understand why their care giver has left and when they’ll return. Older kids often fear that something bad will happen to a loved one while they’re separated.

Fear of separation is considered developmentally appropriate up to two years of age. Separation anxiety disorder can be diagnosed when distress in separation does not naturally reduce after this age and the intensity of the child’s anxiety remains severe.  Crying, tantrums, and pleading can occur when the care giver attempts to leave the child, and general clinginess is common. Children may also complain about feeling sick at home and school, spend a lot of time in the sick bay, or refuse to go to school altogether. School camps and sleepovers can also cause major distress. 

What you can do to help

Children with anxiety difficulties tend to lack confidence in their abilities and feel overwhelmed easily. They are also driven to avoid the things that cause them anxiety, and in doing so, don’t get the chance to learn that what they fear will usually not happen. You can help by working on coping and problem-solving skills together. 



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