Recognizing Anxiety in Children
Children, as well as adults, experience anxiety. In fact, anxiety in childhood is typical during development and may increase during stressful times. For example, a child may experience higher levels of anxiety the first time they attend a new program or transition back into a program after a prolonged absence. Children experiencing increased anxiety may not yet have developed the necessary coping skills or the ways by which to share their feelings. Most children have short-lived fears that they quickly outgrow as they learn through experience that there is no real danger in the things that they fear. For example, a child will learn that when a parent leaves they will come back. Fears brought on by stressful events can be more difficult to respond to, especially during the triggering event.
Your own anxiety level can add to your child’s distress. It’s important to recognize your own fears and anxieties and how you portray these to your child. Taking steps to manage your own stress and wellness is equally as important.
Signs of Anxiety in Young Children
When your child becomes anxious, they may display outward signs that are different from their usual responses and interactions. It is important to take note of these signs, the frequency and duration. This information may help you to identify the cause and respond in a way that is supportive and reassuring.
Children use a variety of ways to communicate how they feel. Feelings of stress or anxiety could present through their body language, facial expressions, refusal, attention seeking, or physical symptoms. Here are some possible signs of anxiety in young children.
Infant and Toddler
- noticeable increase in irritability or fussiness
- startles easily
- fearful of large, looming objects such as puppets or large dolls
- will not go with other familiar adults and pulls away, avoids eye contact and/or cries
- cries excessively when separated from parent/main caregiver
- becomes overly clingy with parent/main caregiver
- appears uncertain and may be very fussy if daily routine is changed
- has a great deal of difficulty settling with new caregiver
- consistently shows no response to experiences that previously delighted them
- excessive fear of imagined or unfamiliar situations such as being left alone or parental loss
- excessive fear of supernatural beings such as ghosts and monsters
- excessive displays of anger when encountering certain situations or people
- increased attention seeking or jealousy with parent/main caregiver
- becomes easily frustrated
- appears withdrawn and/or have difficulty entering into peer interactions
- tends to be overly shy
- displays sudden and marked decrease in appetite
- has difficulty calming down when upset
- seems overly dependent on parent/main caregiver
- reports recurrent physical symptoms such as headaches and/or stomach aches for reasons other than medical
- inability to sit still or short attention span
- insomnia, nightmares or night terrors
- excessive anger when encountering certain situations or people
- bedwetting for reasons other than medical
- oppositional behaviour or resistance to change
- fearful of staying home alone
- fear of failure, embarrassment or rejection therefore, prefers to be alone
- avoids or is upset by listening to certain stories, news or TV shows
- avoids or refuses to go to school or to specific places
- avoids or refuses to participate in certain activities
- problems concentrating
- academic regression
- difficulty engaging in social play with peers
- fearful of adult’s angry voice or avoids communicating with adults
- easily upset over specific situations, objects, animals, or insects (e.g., injury, illness, dogs, bees)
- reactions out of proportion to the situation
- compulsive behaviours, e.g., checking under the bed/looking in the closet
- noticeable increase or decrease in appetite
Common Causes of Anxiety in Children
These are some of the more common reasons for children to show signs of anxiety:
Separation Anxiety – It is expected that young children become anxious when first learning to separate from their parent or main caregiver. This anxiety usually subsides with age and experience. For tips on how to prepare and support your child through their separation anxiety see the tip sheet “Separation Anxiety in Children” in the Behaviour section of Skills for Success.
Fear of Change and the Unknown – Like adults, children often fear the unknown and are cautious in new and unfamiliar situations, for example, the first day of school, meeting new people, or moving into a new neighbourhood. As with separation anxiety, these anxieties usually subside as your child matures.
Traumatic Events – Unpleasant or negative experiences can lead a child to believe that certain things are dangerous or threatening. This could include an embarrassing social situation, or one that caused physical harm or fright, such as a dog bite or a near accident. In particularly distressing situations such as surviving a fire, there is a risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can be treated with the support of a trained professional.
Discrimination – Discrimination or perceived discrimination, due to racism, ableism, classism and many other socially constructed and perpetuated stereotypes/biases can have a profound impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing. These types of discriminations can be experienced directly, and/or indirectly through micro-aggressions and how children and adults with different identities can have different experiences and interactions in their everyday life.
Family and Home-Related Stressors – A disturbance in the home environment may cause a child to feel anxious. Hearing or seeing parents argue may be particularly distressing for a child and may lead to feelings of uncertainty. Family issues that may increase a child’s anxiety include separation and divorce, death or illness in the family, financial pressures and inconsistent or harsh discipline.
Environment-Related Stressors – A child may be anxious about something going on in a specific environment outside of the home such as school, child care, the child and family program or sport activities. The cause of the stress may be related to individuals within the environment, such as bullies, or overly high expectations from an educator. In some cases, the anxiety may stem from the environment itself such as the room set up or too much sensory stimuli, such as noise.
Learned Behaviour – Children can often “pick up” or adopt anxious behaviour from their parents, caregivers, or peers. This is especially true for children who are over-protected or have overly-anxious parents.
Sensory Processing Issues – Some children have difficulty receiving and responding to information from their senses. Proper functioning of our senses enables us to feel comfortable in our surroundings. Feeling over stimulated could increase anxiety for a child and, if left unrecognized may affect the child’s behaviour, development, and ability cope.
Parents and early learning professionals share a role in helping children feel safe and secure. Working together as a team to establish common goals will have the greatest positive impact on your child’s development and well-being.
If you suspect that what you are seeing is a symptom of anxiety and you have an idea of what may be causing the anxiety, then the next step is to decide on the course of action. There are many strategies to help prevent and reduce anxiety.
If you are concerned about your child’s anxiety, consider speaking with your child’s doctor or request a referral to a children’s mental health professional.
Strategies learned in the early years offer life-long benefits for dealing with stress and anxiety.
Beidel, D. C., & Turner, S.M. (2005). Childhood anxiety disorders: A guide and treatment. New York: Routledge.
Cooke, C., Bowie, B., Carrere, S. (2014) Perceived Discrimination and Children’s Mental Health Symptoms. Retrieved June 19, 2020 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25365283/
Cooper, H. (2020, March 05). Helping Children and Teens Cope with Anxiety About COVID-19. Retrieved June 11, 2020, from https://pulse.seattlechildrens.org/helping-children-and-teens-cope-with-anxiety-covid-19/
Dyme Bartlett, J., Griffin, J., & Thomson, D. (2020, March 19). Resources for Supporting Children’s Emotional Well-being during COVID-19 Pandemic. Retrieved June 11, 2020 from https://www.childtrends.org/publications/resources-for-supporting-childrens-emotional-well-being-during-the-covid-19-pandemic
Hurley, K. (2018). Helping Kids with Anxiety: Strategies to Help Anxious Children. Retrieved June 11, 2020 from https://www.psycom.net/help-kids-with-anxiety
Illinois Early Learning Project, (2005). Please don’t go: Separation Anxiety and Children. Retrieved June 11, 2020 from https://illinoisearlylearning.org/tipsheets/sepanxiety/
Mount Pleasant Family Centre Society. (2020, April 22). Early Childhood Development in a Time of Pandemic. Retrieved June 11, 2020, from https://www.mpfamilycentre.ca/
Tran, A. (2014). Family Contexts: Parental Experiences of Discrimination and Child Mental Health. Retrieved June 19, 2020 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24146093/