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All children worry, but too much worrying can be a sign of generalised anxiety. This is a tendency to worry about many areas of life, anything from friendships to world events. You can help a child who experiences generalised anxiety learn to handle and overcome her worries.
Anxious schoolgirl talking to father
 

Identifying generalised anxiety in children

Generalised anxiety typically emerges when children reach school age. It’s not often seen in younger children.

Children with generalised anxiety might:

  • worry about lots of things – for example, health, schoolwork, performing at school or in sports, money, safety, world events
  • feel the need to be perfectionists
  • be scared of asking or answering questions in class
  • find it hard to perform in tests
  • be afraid of new or unfamiliar situations
  • seek constant reassurance
  • complain about feeling sick when worried.

It’s easy not to notice generalised anxiety in children. Children who have it can work very hard in the classroom and other situations. It can be difficult to know they’re constantly worrying. But they will often ask lots of questions, over and over, in new situations – for example, ‘What’s going to happen?’ or ‘What if … ?’

There are also some physical signs – daydreaming, stomach aches, headaches, tiredness and inattention. Children might also spend a lot of time getting to sleep at night, because they’re worrying about the events of the next day.

All young children ask lots of questions – they like to know what’s happening, when and where. This is a normal part of learning and understanding daily life. But if you’re concerned about the kinds or number of questions your child asks, it’s best to talk with your GP or health professional.

Helping with generalised anxiety in children

If your child is experiencing generalised anxiety, he’ll probably look to you for help and support.

Read about the stepladder approach. This gentle behaviour technique is recommended for helping children who suffer from generalised anxiety.

Here are some other ideas to help your child learn to handle her generalised anxiety. 

  • Gradually reduce the number of reassurance-seeking questions your child is able to ask you – for example, ‘What is going to happen?’ If you’ve already answered your child’s question, encourage him to think about the situation, come up with the answers, and rely on his own judgment.
  • Some children use lucky charms or special clothes or objects to make a situation ‘safe’. This is OK to start with, but consider gradually phasing them out so your child can eventually face new situations without them. She’ll learn that she can handle it on her own.
  • Think about whether to let your child’s school or preschool know about his anxiety. Sometimes it might be useful for the school to know about your child’s worries, particularly before events such as excursions, camps or carnivals. But it can sometimes be good not to tell the teachers, so that when your child comes across something that make him anxious he’ll learn to handle it on his own.
  • It’s tempting to give your child constant reassurance, and to help her avoid the things she worries about. This will only make the problem worse. It’s important for her to learn to handle worrying situations.
  • No matter how frustrated you feel, avoid criticising your child or being negative about his worry or need for reassurance.
  • Make a conscious effort to foster your child’s self-esteem by complimenting her and giving her lots of positive attention.
  • When your child manages to calmly do something that normally makes him worry, give him lots of praise and encouragement.

Professional help for generalised anxiety

You know your child best. If you’re worried about her worrying and feel it’s affecting her enjoyment of life, consider seeking professional help. Here are some places to start:

  • your child’s school counsellor
  • your child’s GP or paediatrician (who might refer you to a child psychologist)
  • your local children’s health or community health centre
  • a specialist anxiety clinic (present in most states).
Visit My Neighbourhood to find professional services near you.

Generalised anxiety disorder

About 5-6% of children develop generalised anxiety disorder – this is when children worry uncontrollably and experience distress as a result. They might also find it very difficult to engage in their normal activities.

It’s common for children to have periods when they worry a lot. If the constant worrying goes on for longer than six months, it’s worth seeking help.

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  • Last Updated 20-08-2009
  • Last Reviewed 14-05-2014
  • Esbjorn, B.H., Hoeyer, M., Dryborg, J., Leth, I., & Kendall, P.C. (2010). Prevalence and co-morbidity among anxiety disorders in a national cohort of psychiatrically referred children and adolescents. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 24(8), 866-872.