What is generalised anxiety in children?
Generalised anxiety typically starts to show when children reach school age. Younger children usually don’t have generalised anxiety.
Children with generalised anxiety might:
- worry about a lot of things – for example, health, schoolwork, school or sport performance, money, safety or world events
- feel the need to be perfect
- 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 they’re worried.
It’s easy not to notice generalised anxiety in children. Children who have it often work very hard in the classroom and other situations. It can be difficult to know they’re constantly worrying.
But they often ask a lot 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 more than an hour getting to sleep at night, because they’re worrying about the events of the next day.
All young children ask a lot 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 kind 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, they need your help and support. Here are some ways to help your child learn to manage generalised anxiety.
- If your child is asking you a lot of questions, encourage them to think about the situation, come up with the answers, and rely on their own judgment. And you could say encouraging things like ‘You’ve handled this well before’.
- If your child uses lucky charms or special objects to make a situation ‘safe’, this is OK to start with. But gradually phase out these lucky objects so your child learns to handle situations on their own.
- Think about whether to let your child’s school or preschool know about their anxiety. Sometimes it’s useful for the school to know about your child’s worries, particularly before events like excursions, camps or carnivals.
- Try not to give your child constant reassurance, or help them avoid the things they worry about. This will only make the problem worse. It’s important for your child to learn to handle worrying situations.
- Avoid criticising your child or being negative about their worry or need for reassurance, no matter how frustrated you feel.
- Make a conscious effort to foster your child’s self-esteem by giving them plenty of positive attention, particularly when they’re brave and courageous.
Read about the stepladder approach. This gentle behaviour technique is recommended for helping children who suffer from generalised anxiety.
Professional help for generalised anxiety
If you’re concerned about your child’s worrying and feel it’s affecting their enjoyment of life, consider seeking professional help. Here are some places to start:
- your child’s teacher or a school counsellor
- your child’s GP or paediatrician, who will be able to 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
Your child might be able to get Medicare rebates for up to 10 mental health service sessions from psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists each calendar year.
To get these rebates, your child will need a mental health care plan from a GP (this covers the services your child needs and the goals of the treatment), or a referral from a psychiatrist or paediatrician.
Generalised anxiety disorder
Some children develop generalised anxiety disorder – this is when children worry uncontrollably and experience distress as a result. They might also find it very hard to do normal, everyday activities.
It’s common for children to have times when they worry a lot. If the constant worrying goes on for longer than 6 months, it’s worth seeking help.