What are signs of anxiety in a child?

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Just like adults, it’s normal for children to experience feelings of anxiety or worry from time to time. As children grow, some fearful behaviour is common as they learn to navigate and regulate their emotions. 

Most children will learn to cope with their feelings as they grow and when within a supportive environment where they feel able to navigate these feelings safely.

It is common for toddlers and children to act out and behave in ways that would appear to us as adults as anxious, such as tantrums or clinginess. However, when these start to impact their emotions or their behaviour on a regular basis, this is when it might be something more. 

What is anxiety?

“Anxiety is the physiological and physical manifestation of fear and danger in the brain,” explains Jaimie Bloch, child and family Clinical Psychologist and director of Mind Movers Psychology. “It is our warning alarm of protection and is a biological function that we need to help keep ourselves safe.”

Common causes of anxiety in young children

When it comes to understanding anxiety in kids, it can often be hard to know if it is anxiety, behavioural or a developmental stage that can make it difficult for parents to navigate.

It can be particularly common for children to experience worry around change. Some common causes of anxiety in young children, include:

  • Starting daycare or school
  • Meeting new people or strangers
  • Change or disruption to their usual routine
  • Moving house 
  • New baby
  • Toilet training

And there are also certain stages in a child’s development where it is normal for them to elicit feelings of anxiety, such as separation anxiety. Not all children will experience it, but it is extremely common from around 10 months and can last until around two-and-a-half to three years of age.

Signs of anxiety in children?

All children will experience anxiety differently and it will affect them in many different ways, however, some common signs for parents to look out for include:

  • Irritable
  • Prone to tantrums and outbursts
  • Sleep issues – difficulty falling asleep, frequent waking during the night
  • Bad dreams
  • Issues around food and eating – lack of appetite or fussiness around certain foods
  • Negative thoughts
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Crying
  • Clinginess
  • Feeling unwell
  • Headaches
  • Social anxiety
  • Separation anxiety

Tips for helping your child with anxiety

The key to supporting your toddler, says Jaimie, is teaching them skills to manage their own emotions and helping them learn to turn their internal danger alarm off.

“This alarm can become faulty and go off when it shouldn’t. Humans are the only mammals on the planet that can set this biological fear system off by just a thought, so it’s no wonder toddlers can easily feel anxious.”

Here are Jaimie’s top tips for parents for helping their kids with anxiety:

1. Stay calm yourself 

It can be difficult as a parent or caregiver to remain calm when you have a screaming child on your hands. However, research shows that children, especially toddlers are highly aligned to parents’ emotions and so the first step to helping them regulate, is by regulating yourself first.

2. Validate and accept their emotions

Once you feel calm and ready to handle your child’s emotions, it is important to connect and accept what your child is feeling. It’s not about going overboard so far as to make your child more worried but rather naming the emotion and validating that it is there. We want our children to know that we completely understand, but that they can get through it and that these feelings don’t have to stop us from doing things.

3. Learn their anxiety cues and implement calming strategies

When you see the signs of anxiety presenting themselves or particular triggers for your child, it’s important to implement any co-soothing or coping strategies. This may look like their favourite song, or it could be you placing your hand over their heart and helping them engage in deep breathing till their heart rate comes down. 

As they grow, help them come up with coping strategies they can implement themselves without the need for them to come from you.

If these anxiety strategies don’t appear to be working for your child or you’re noticing their anxiety is starting to impact their day-to-day life and behaviour — or if you are worried in any way — you should always speak with your doctor. Your GP can help you understand the signs to look for and provide you with some tools to manage them or they can refer you to speak with a child psychologist for further guidance and support.

When your child is feeling emotionally dysregulated – the most important thing you can do to care for them is to be there. When our children are young (and even as they grow) they rely on us to be their emotional anchor, says Jaimie. Young children do not have the coping strategies within themselves yet, but being a source of support and love, and knowing when it’s time to seek help are the most important things.

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