Anxiety in Children

What is it?

It is relatively normal for children to experience anxiety. Childhood anxieties stem from evolutionary processes that are designed to keep us safe, and children often fear things that any person would feel afraid of at a young age. For most children, these fears in childhood come and go, lasting for brief periods of time. Anxiety in children is not only normal, some fears can be predicted to occur at particular developmental stages in childhood, such as:

  • Fear of loud noises, heights, strangers and separation tends to occur in babies and toddlers
  • Fear of being alone and of the dark tends to occur in preschoolers
  • Fear of supernatural things (e.g., ghosts and monsters), social situations, failure, criticism, achievement tests, harm or threats to safety tend to occur in school-aged children.

However, for some children, anxiety becomes problematic, interferes with social and emotional wellbeing, and can create issues in healthy childhood development. Anxiety in children can also create additional concerns related to eating, sleep, toileting, friendship development, unwanted behaviours, and even school attendance.

Common types of Childhood Anxiety

Anxiety can present differently in children, depending on what type of anxiety or what is causing the fear and worry. It is important to note that children can experience more than one type of anxiety, including:

  • Social anxiety: shyness, fear of negative evaluation, difficulty interacting with peers, limited friendships, avoiding social situations particularly where they may be the focus of attention (e.g., answering in class).
  • Separation anxiety: crying, screaming, clinging, and refusing to be separated from their parents/carers, fear of being hurt or having an accident, school refusal, inability to stay with other people or have sleep overs, feel physically unwell when separated from parents/carers.
  • Generalised anxiety: worry about health, school, sport, money, safety, world events etc, feeling the need to be perfect, fear of negative evaluation, fear of unfamiliar, unpredictable, or uncontrollable situations, reassurance seeking, and feeling sick including physically symptoms when worrying, sleep issues, emotion dysregulation and outbursts.
  • Specific phobias: excessive fear, worry and avoidance of particular objects or situations, reaction to fear that is disproportionate to the object or situation itself, a firm belief in being unable to cope with fear, interferes with everyday activities due to hypervigilance, distractibility, or avoidance of previously enjoyed activities.

How do we treat Anxiety in Children?

Depending on the type of anxiety your child is experiencing and whether it is developmentally expected or not, there are a range of treatment options available. CBT is a short-term, focused approach that aims to bring about change to patterns of thinking that can lead to anxious feelings and behaviours. Exposure therapy helps children to develop effective coping skills when they face their feared object in a safe, supportive, gradual manner under the guidance of a trained health professions. Mindfulness based strategies can help children to develop strategies for emotion regulation and distress management.

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