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.
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 like; starting a new school, sitting exams, moving to a different area where they have to make new friends. This is specially true for children and young people that might be described as shy, and those who struggle with 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 actual dangers that may 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 starts to impact on 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 behavioural problems in school (e.g., angry outbursts towards other children, disrupting class due to restlessness, etc.).
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:
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).
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.
Some children and young people can develop anxiety disorders (or trauma- and stressor-related disorders) after traumatic events, such as:
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:
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:
If you're worried about a child, even if you're unsure, contact the NSPCC helpline to speak to one of their counsellors. Call 0808 800 5000, email firstname.lastname@example.org or fill in their online form.
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.