Worries & Anxieties

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 and have worries & anxieties 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.

If you are worried about difficulties your child is having here are some of the most common types of anxiety to try and understand what might be going on.

Anxiety is a feeling of being worried or frightened about something. We all experience anxiety and it can be a good thing but when it gets in the way of enjoying life, this is when it becomes a problem. It is not just a feeling of being uncomfortable sometimes.

Anxiety can vary in how severe it is. There are different types including, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Fears, Phobias, Separation, Social, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).

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. 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 behaviour 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 care-giver 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 avoiding social situations.

What causes worries and anxieties?

No one really knows for sure. Anxiety exists in everyone but an anxiety disorder often comes after a big event or change in someone’s life. We can often deal with one big thing but when more than one thing happens at the same time, it can cause things to become more difficult to deal with.

Anxiety tends to run in families, so if someone in your family is known to worry a lot, they may be more likely to worry as well. Some of this will be passed on in the genes, but they may also ‘learn’ anxious behaviour from being around anxious people.

There may be other things going on for the child that is causing them to become anxious, for example problems at school like bullying or struggling to cope with the school work.

Children who have to cope with stressful situations like bereavement, parental illness or divorce often become anxious and insecure. They may be able to manage one event, but may struggle to cope if several difficult things happen together, such as parents divorcing, moving home and changing school.

It is important for a child to feel soothed and supported when they are anxious or worried about anything. If they feel you may also be anxious or worried too they will be left feeling insecure and lack in confidence.

What are the signs?

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:

Physical Symptoms Psychological Symptoms
Stomach ache, sick, “butterflies” Upset
Dizzy Worried (always feel on the edge)
Palpitations (racing heart) Irritable (easily annoyed)
Short of breath Difficult to relax/restless
Trembling or shaking Difficult to concentrate
Excessive sweating (palms, face etc.) Sense of dread

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.

Some of this content has been adapted from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. For more in depth information visit their website.