Is My Child Experiencing Anxiety?

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Feelings of fear or anxiety have evolved with us to help keep us safe and away from danger. In this article we reflect on those moments where anxiety begins to have more impact in your child's life.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is what we feel when we are scared, worried or tense about things that are about to happen, or which we fear could happen in the future. Anxiety is a natural human response when we perceive that we are under threat. It can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.

What is the Impact of Anxiety?

All children and young people will experience anxiety from time to time, and anxiety levels can fluctuate throughout the day depending on what they are doing and how confident they feel about it. Anxiety can also become heightened during times of increased uncertainty (e.g., going to a new school, taking exams, or moving to a different area without an established friend group). This is especially true for children and young people that might be described as shy and those who struggle in social situations.

Worrying about things is normal and provides an essential function in our lives. Without the ability to worry, we wouldn’t stop to consider dangers that actually threaten us. This is all part of growing up - learning to manage stress levels and settle oneself is a critical skill that will continue to benefit a young person as they transition into adulthood.

Anxiety becomes a problem when it persists and begins to impact your child’s day-to-day life. Reductions in academic performance can be a common symptom, as anxiety negatively affects working memory, making it difficult to learn and retain information. This can also lead to behavioral problems in school (e.g., angry outbursts towards other children, disrupting class due to restlessness, etc.).


Signs of Anxiety in Children and Young People

When young children feel anxious, they cannot always understand or express what they are feeling. Without obvious signs, like shaking, blushing, or perspiring, anxiety can be difficult to spot.

You or their teachers may notice that they:

  • Have become prone to angry outbursts which are new and out of character
  • Start avoiding activities, such as seeing friends, going out in public or attending school
  • Lack the confidence to try new things or seem unable to face simple, everyday tasks
  • Experience problems eating or sleeping
  • Have difficulty concentrating
  • Have negative thoughts, or imagine that bad things are going to happen

Sometimes, people can have what is known as an anxiety attack or panic attacks. They often occur suddenly, without warning, and symptoms tend to peak within minutes; typical symptoms include: chest pain, heart palpitations, sense of impending doom, sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, numbness, or abdominal cramping. They can be very distressing and frightening, and the fear of having another one can be more debilitating than the panic attacks themselves (often leading to avoidance of certain situations linked to panic).


What Causes Anxiety in Children?

While genetics can play a role in the development of anxiety, some children and young people are naturally shy and sensitive. These individuals are often more anxious and less able to cope with stress than others. Children can also pick up anxious behavior and thinking from the people around them, so it's important to model calm behavior/thinking as a parent.

Anxiety can also be linked to underlying health issues, and in certain cases, symptoms of anxiety may be initial indicators of medical illness. The most common medical issues linked to anxiety include: heart disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, and side effects of certain medications.

Traumatic Events

Some children and young people can develop anxiety disorders (or trauma- and stressor-related disorders) after traumatic events, such as:

  • Dealing with a serious illness
  • Getting injured in an accident
  • Frequently moving house or school
  • School-related issues like exams or bullying
  • If they have been or are being abused or exploited

Common Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents

When anxiety begins to cause extreme distress or gets in the way of your child's daily life, then they may be struggling with an anxiety disorder. Some of the more common anxiety disorders among children/adolescents include:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder is when a child feels constant and intense anxiety about a wide range of things (e.g., schoolwork, friendships, sports, etc.) for an extended period of time (6 months or longer). They tend to struggle to control their worries and believe a disaster is likely to occur despite having a lack of evidence to support that belief.

  • Social Anxiety Disorder is when a child experiences intense fear or anxiety of social situations where they believe they could be negatively evaluated/rejected by others. This anxiety is persistent (6 months or more) and must occur with other children - not just during interactions with adults.

  • Separation Anxiety Disorder is a developmentally-inappropriate and excessive fear/anxiety concerning separation from those to whom the child is attached (persistent anxiety lasting at least 4 weeks in children and adolescents). This is the most prevalent anxiety disorder in children younger than 12 years. If separation anxiety appears unexpectedly in an older child, there might be another problem, such as bullying or abuse.

  • Specific Phobia is when a child has an intense fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation (e.g., flying, heights, dogs, the dark, seeing blood, etc.). Even thinking about a phobia can cause anxiety.


What Can I Do?

Use your one-on-one time to talk about this topic with your child. Give them uninterrupted time to vent their worries and explore solutions with you. For more information on anxiety disorders and tips on how to help your child, check out these links:

Other Resources

The SafeToNet Mobile App helps identify when a child is presenting signs of stress or anxiety while messaging others, and shares resources and audio practices that can help them understand and calm their anxiety in the moment. To complement, SafeToNet’s Emotion Diary was designed to act as a safe place for your child to help them track, articulate, and analyze their feelings.