Anxiety, worries and fear: a normal part of childhood
It’s normal for children to sometimes show signs of anxiety, worries and fears. In most cases, anxiety in children comes and goes and doesn’t last long.
In fact, different anxieties often develop at different stages of development. For example:
- Babies and toddlers often fear loud noises, heights, strangers and separation.
- Preschoolers might start to show fear of being on their own and of the dark.
- School-age children might be afraid of supernatural things (like ghosts), social situations, failure, criticism, tests and physical harm or threat.
Babies and young children don’t tend to worry about things. For children to be worried, they have to imagine the future and bad things that might happen in it. This is why worries become more common in children over 8 years of age.
Children also worry about different things as they get older. In early childhood, they might worry about getting sick or hurt. In older childhood and adolescence, the focus becomes less concrete. For example, they might think a lot about war, environmental, economic and political fears, family relationships and so on.
Worry and fear are different forms of anxiety. Fear usually happens in the present. Worry usually happens when a child thinks about past or future situations. For example, a child might be fearful when they see a dog and also worry about visiting a friend with a pet dog.
How to support children with anxiety
If your child shows signs of normal childhood anxiety, you can support them in several ways:
- Acknowledge your child’s fear or worry and let them know that most children feel anxious sometimes. You can encourage your child to be kind to themselves when they feel this way.
- Gently encourage your child to do things they’re anxious about, but don’t push them to face situations they don’t want to face.
- Wait until your child actually gets anxious before you step in to help.
- Praise your child for doing something they’re anxious about.
- Avoid criticising your child for being afraid or worried.
- Avoid labelling your child as ‘shy’ or ‘anxious’.
Read about the stepladder approach, a gentle behaviour technique that you can use to help children manage anxiety.
When to be concerned about anxiety in children
Most children have fears or worries of some kind. But if you’re concerned about your child’s fears, worries or anxiety, it’s a good idea to seek professional help.
You might consider seeing your GP or another health professional if your child’s:
- anxiety is stopping them from doing things they want to do or interfering with their friendships, schoolwork or family life
- behaviour is very different from children the same age – for example, it’s common for most children to have separation fears when going to preschool for the first time, but far less common over the age of 8 years
- reactions seem unusually severe – for example, your child might be very distressed or very hard to settle when they’re anxious or worried.
Severe anxiety can affect children’s health and happiness. Some anxious children will grow out of their fears, but others will keep having trouble with anxiety unless they get professional help. When children’s anxiety is severe or long-lasting, it might be an anxiety disorder.
These are the most common types of anxiety disorders in children:
- Social anxiety – this is intense fear of social situations or being judged or embarrassed in public. It can also include intense worry or ‘fear of missing out’ or not being included.
- Separation anxiety – this is intense fear of being separated from parents or carers.
- Generalised anxiety – this is intense worry about many areas of life.
You can be a role model for your child by managing your own anxiety. You can also help your child see that anxiety in itself isn’t bad. It’s only a problem when it stops us from doing what we want to do that it becomes a problem.
Professional help and treatment for children with anxiety
Children with anxiety disorders and other mental health problems usually respond very well to professional treatment.
You can seek professional information and advice from several sources:
- your child’s teacher at preschool or school, or a school counsellor
- your child’s GP or paediatrician, who can refer you to an appropriate mental health practitioner
- your local children’s health or community health centre
- a specialist anxiety clinic (present in most states)
- your local mental health service.
If your child is aged 5 years or older, they can talk with a Kids Helpline counsellor by calling 1800 551 800 or using the Kids Helpline email counselling service or the Kids Helpline web counselling service.
Financial support for children with anxiety disorders
To get these rebates, your child will need a mental health care plan from a GP (this covers what services your child needs and the goals of the treatment), or a referral from a psychiatrist or paediatrician.
Severe anxiety can sometimes be caused by an underlying medical condition. If your child is experiencing severe anxiety, it’s a good idea to talk to your GP or another health professional.