Dealing with anxiety in young children

Read our supportive advice to help your child manage their feelings

As mental and emotional health is more widely discussed now then ever before, families can understand how anxiety can have an impact on a child. 
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It may not always be easy to spot the signs of anxiety in children and it may present itself in behavioural issues or emotional outbursts. Our guidance will help you understand your children's needs and how to help them manage their feelings.

"My tummy hurts" is one of the most common things parents hear when a child is feeling anxious. Most young children are already able to tell us if they are in pain. However, they may not necessarily understand what they are dealing with, or have the language skills or experience to express themselves if they are feeling worried about something.

Paying closer attention to our children's cry for help

Children can be sensitive to the world around them. They may feel anxious when they are experiencing challenges at home or at school such as issues with friendships, conflict in the home or changes that they are struggling to cope with. They may not be able to deal with the issues they are facing so it may develop into anxiety. 

These are some signs that may indicate your child is struggling:

  • Tummy aches or headaches during stressful situations
  • Often upset or tearful for no apparent reason
  • Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or repeated nightmares
  • Always worrying, or afraid of something happening in the future
  • Avoiding eating or comfort eating
  • Trouble staying focused or concentrating, and maybe extra fidgety
  • Having a hard time coping or opening-up
  • Needing the toilet more frequently than normal
  • Frequent meltdowns or tantrums, or other behavioural challenges
  • Difficulty in breathing, or a lot of sweating
  • Avoids meeting new people, or people who cause them stress
  • Avoids crowded places such as supermarkets or school
  • Strange behaviours that can cause self-harm (pinching, biting, scratching or pulling their hair out)
  • Panic attacks or their heart feels like it is racing.

How anxiety can present itself in young children

When anxiety is affecting your child's wellbeing for a prolonged period, it could become a disorder. It is important to remember that some of these might just be part of their developmental phase and if you are concerned, you can speak to your health visitor or GP. 

Separation anxiety - This happens when a younger child is separated from his/her parent or guardian. They may cling to you when you drop them off at school, or at grandparents, and cry and cling onto you. It may help to organise play dates with other children. Encourage them to spend time away from you before they start school. Ask your family to have your child for an hour here or there to help them get used to being apart from you.

Obsessive behaviours - You may notice your young child insist on doing things in a particular order and may get anxious if it is interrupted such as only drinking from one cup, using one plate or wearing the same PJs. Try to introduce change in a simple way by asking them to do something new and allowing them to take control of that situation with you by their side. Whether it is them shopping for a new plate or choosing new PJs, this will help them regain some form of control. 

Fear of a new situation – Some children become anxious around people outside of their home and busy places. They may worry about meet new people or making new friends. Try to encourage your child to interact with other children, taking small steps as their confidence in themselves increases. Speak to their teacher for support in this too.

Phobias and fears - Children experience panic or severe fear of a specific thing or situation such as spiders, birds or the dark. You may find that they grow out of this but if this becomes an issue, please speak to your GP or the School Nurse to get some further support.

Regression - Some children may regress back to a time where they felt safer and more at ease so you may find them not sleeping well or perhaps having wee accidents, etc. If that is the case, keep calm and use the same techniques you used when they were younger to help them. 

Panic attacks – Children may feel that it is difficult to breathe and start to panic. Remind your child that it will soon pass and practise breathing techniques to regain control. You can teach your child calming breathing techniques to help if they do feel overwhelmed. Alternatively, you might ask a younger child to breathe as if they are blowing up a balloon, so a long slow breath in, and a long slow breath out. 

Challenging behaviour can often be an unmet emotional need

When dealing with challenging behaviour, it can be hard to figure out what could be underneath it. When a child acts in a negative way such as biting, crying or hitting, it is usually a cry for help. You may find that they are overly clingy and cry even if you leave the room. 

Understanding what may be causing the anxiety is important, maybe there has been a recent change at home or at their nursery/school. It may be conflict within the home, friendship issues, struggle with routines, bereavement or even a new move. Try to think back to when the anxiety started as that can help you pinpoint what may have caused them to feel this way. 

As adults, most of us can recall times in our own childhood, where we felt worried or anxious about something. These worries, no matter how irrational they seem to parents, can feel very real to a child. Listen to their concerns, reassure them and try not to dismiss their fear as no big deal.

How to help your child manage their anxiety 

Talk to your child and ask them questions about how they are feeling. Ensure the questions are simple and perhaps you can use emoji faces showing happy, sad, angry, etc. and ask your child to point to how they are feeling.

Try to listen without interruption, so your child feels heard. You may need to help them with words if they are struggling to express themselves or ask them to draw what they are feeling. It is crucial to remain calm at all times, as it may take some time for them to show you how they feel.

Use social stories, which is a visual aid to help children understand a process, a change or a situation that is troubling them. It consists of little sentences to explain the change with a picture or a drawing to help them understand. This webpage on social stories from the National Autistic Society is helpful.

Speak to your GP or Health Visitor for support and ask them for strategies on helping your child manage their anxiety. They may make a referral to the Occupational Health team who may be able to give you some tips on providing sensory support to help them regulate. 

Use play as much as you can, such as lego or little figures, etc. This can help you to see how they are feeling through their play but help them to work through their triggers, stressors and feelings. 

There are many amazing books and workbooks that can help young children with anxiety. Reading with your child may soothe their worries.

Encourage your child to name their feelings so they are able to express themselves a bit better especially when they are feeling overwhelmed. They may give it any names of their choosing and it will help you understand how they are feeling.

It is important to give them lots of reassurance and affection so they feel safe and able to explore their feelings with you. 

Help them make a very simple plan so they can see a way forward and include breathing and counting to 5 slowly, doing some star jumps and/or cuddling up to their favourite comforter.

Further support

If you would like further support and advice, call our helpline on 0808 800 2222 or email us at askus@familylives.org.uk. You can talk to us online via our live chat service, which is open, Monday to Friday between 1.30pm and 5.30pm. You may also find it helps to find out how other parents have coped with this on our online forums.

You can also get some advice from Anxiety UK or Young Minds. The NHS website has a lot of information too on anxiety in children. 

There are many wonderful and helpful resources out there that can help, this interactive video from Sesame Street can help your child learn those important breathing techniques, remember to touch his belly. 

If you are worried about your child feeling anxious and feel it is affecting their day to day life, please do get in touch with your Health Visitor or GP for further support. 

You may find it helpful to watch this video called Ruby's Worry by Tom Percival  

 This advice article was created on July 2020

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