Children, like adults, have all sorts of strong feelings about what is happening to them. It’s natural for them to feel fearful or worried from time to time. However, a small group of children and young people have severe anxiety which causes a lot of distress, and can seriously affect the way their everyday lives.

Growing up: different types of anxiety

Anxieties are grouped on what the fear or the worry is about. These groups are helpful in understanding what the difficulties are and how to treat them.

Fears and phobias

Young children often develop fears, for example of animals or of the dark. A phobia is an extreme fear which causes a lot of distress and affects the child’s life significantly. For example, a fear of dogs would be called a phobia if it means that a child refuses ever to go to the park to play.

Most children either grow out of their fears or learn to manage them with support and encouragement, but it is much more difficult to cope with a phobia without some extra help.

General anxiety

Some youngsters feel anxious most of the time for no apparent reason. It may be part of their temperament, or it may be part of a pattern of behavior that is shared with other members of the family. If the anxiety becomes very severe, it can mean that the child will not want to go to school, cannot concentrate or learn, and is not confident with other people.

Separation anxiety

Worry about not being with a child’s regular caregiver is a common experience for most children. It normally develops at 6 months and can go on in some form during the pre-school years.

It can make going to sleep, parents leaving for work, or settling at nursery or school very difficult at times. If it is extreme and affects the child’s development, education and family life, it may be useful to get some additional help.

Social anxiety

It may be helpful to think of this as an extreme, sometimes disabling, type of shyness. It means that although children and young people are not affected in the company of people they know and family, they find it very worrying to be in other social situations. This means that they will usually avoid them. This causes problems for the child in making new friends or dealing with situations at school. Older children describe it as a fear of humiliation or embarrassment which leads them to avoid social situations.

A small minority of children and young people may develop other specific types of anxiety, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Unlike young people and adults, it is extremely rare for children to suffer panic attacks.

What are the signs of anxiety?

Anxiety can cause both physical and emotional symptoms. This means it can affect how a person feels in their body and also health. Some of the symptoms are:

  • Feeling fearful or panicky
  • Feeling breathless, sweaty, or complaining of ‘butterflies’ or pains in the chest or stomach
  • Feeling tense, fidgety, using the toilet often

These symptoms may come and go. Young children can’t tell you that they are anxious. They become irritable, tearful and clingy, have difficulty sleeping, and can wake in the night or have bad dreams. Anxiety can even cause a child to develop a headache, a stomach-ache or to feel sick.

What can I do to help?

A lot can be done to stop children from being anxious. Parents and teachers can help by remembering that children, like adults, may get anxious about the sudden change.

  • It helps if you can prepare them in advance and explain what is going to happen and why.
  • Regular routines around bedtime and getting ready for school can help very young children with separation anxiety.
  • There may be books or games that can help children to understand upsetting things, such as serious illness, separation or bereavement.
  • Children over the age of five often find it helpful to talk about their worries to an understanding adult, which could be someone outside the immediate family.
  • They may need comfort, reassurance and practical help with how to cope.

If your child is showing signs of anxiety, it is important that you can show them that you care and want to understand the reason why:

  • Think about whether there is something going on in the family that could be causing worry.
  • Are they picking up on your own worry?
  • Is something happening at school or with friends?

All families have times when they have to deal with a lot of stress and worry. At times like these, you or your child might need extra help and support from friends, family members or professional help.