Recognizing Anxiety in Children
Children, as well as adults, experience anxiety. In fact, anxiety in children should be expected at specific times during development and is usually regarded as normal. For example, a child sometimes experiences higher levels of anxiety the first time she attends school or child care. Children experiencing excessive anxiety may not yet have the ability to vocalize their feelings or possess the necessary coping skills to manage. As a result, dealing with their fears and anxiety may be even more difficult.
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 there are no monsters under the bed, or that when mom leaves for work, she will come back at the end of the day. This is a routine part of a child’s development. However, some children are more anxious than others.Additional reassurance or help from a child psychologist or children’s mental health professional may be needed, especially if an anxiety disorder is suspected. Anxiety becomes a problem if it begins to affect your child’s daily routine and functioning or if it is causing significant distress.
Signs of Anxiety in Young Children
When your child becomes anxious she may display outward signs that are different from her regular responses and interactions. It is important to take note of the signs, their frequency and duration. This information will help you to determine the cause and then work toward helping your child lessen her anxiety.
Listed below are some of the most common signs of anxiety that children may exhibit at different stages of development. However, these signs may have other root causes such as medical conditions or learned behaviour.
For more information on determining the possible causes for problem, behaviour see the ABC Functional Assessment Card in the Behaviour section of Skills for Success.
Your child has many ways of showing you how she feels, including body language, facial expression, or physical symptoms. As communication skills develop, so may her ability to tell you about her thoughts, feelings and experiences. Here are some signs of anxiety in children displayed in broad age groups. It is important to consider where your child is in their development in order to understand different signs of anxiety.
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
- is 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
- excessively fearful of uncomfortable situations such as the dark, monsters and ghosts
- excessive displays of anger when presented with certain situations or individuals
- displays excessive attention seeking or jealousy with parent or main caregiver
- becomes easily frustrated
- may have a tendency to be 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 or main caregiver
- exhibits recurrent physical symptoms such as headaches and/or stomach aches for reasons other than medical
- exhibits inability to sit still or short attention span
- experiences insomnia
- experiences nightmares or night terrors
- displays excessive anger when presented with certain situations or individuals
- experiences bedwetting for reasons other than medical
- displays oppositional behaviour or resistance to change
- is fearful of staying home alone
- displays 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
- has problems concentrating
- experiences academic regression
- displays difficulty engaging in social play with peers
- is fearful of adult’s angry voice or avoids communicating with adults
- becomes easily upset over specific situations, objects, animals, or insects (e.g., injury, illness, dogs, bees)
- exhibits reactions out of proportion to the situation
- displays compulsive behaviours (e.g., checking under the bed/ in the closet
- experiences noticeable increase or decrease in appetite
If any of these signs cause you to suspect that anxiety may be a concern for your child, it is important to work together to understand what may be causing that anxiety.
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 Young 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 by a trained professional.
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 insecurity. Family issues that increase a child’s anxiety may include separations 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 homesuch as school, child care, or sport activities. The cause of the stress may be related to individuals within the environment, such as bullies, or overly high expectations from a strict teacher. In some cases the anxiety may stem from the environment itself such as the room set up or excessive 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, especially those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, have difficulty receiving and sorting out information from their senses. Proper functioning of our senses enables us to feel comfortable in our surroundings. This problem can cause great anxiety for a child and, if left unrecognized and untreated, often affects the child’s behaviour, development, and ability to properly interact.
For more information on sensory processing issues, signs and strategies see the Sensory Stimulation workshop.
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.
Parents and early childhood professionals share a role in making 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.