Signs of generalised anxiety in children
Generalised anxiety or worry typically starts to show when children reach school age. Babies, toddlers and preschoolers usually don’t have generalised anxiety.
If your child has generalised anxiety, they might:
- continually ask the same questions in new or unfamiliar situations – for example, ‘What’s going to happen?’ or ‘What if … ?
- 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
- fear asking or answering questions in class
- find it hard to perform in tests
- seek constant reassurance.
There are also some physical signs – 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.
The signs of generalised anxiety can be easy to miss. Your child might work very hard in the classroom and other situations. It can be difficult to know they’re constantly worrying.
All young children ask a lot of questions – they like to know what’s happening, when and where. This is a natural 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.
Supporting children with generalised anxiety
You can best support your child when you understand their anxious feelings. A good way to do this is by thinking about your child’s anxiety signs and the situations in which they seem to happen. You could even keep a record of these signs and situations to see whether there’s a pattern.
When you understand your child’s anxiety, it helps you choose the best way to respond. Here are ideas:
- If your child asks the same questions over and over, encourage them to think about the situation themselves. For example, ‘It sounds like you’re feeling worried’ or ‘It sounds like you think something bad might happen’.
- Avoid constantly reassuring your child or helping them avoid things they worry about. This won’t help your child learn to handle worrying situations.
- If your child uses lucky charms or special objects to make a situation ‘safe’, go with this to start with. But gradually phase out these lucky objects so your child learns to handle situations on their own.
- Make a conscious effort to foster your child’s self-esteem by giving them positive attention, particularly when they’re courageous.
- Avoid criticising your child or being negative about their worry or need for reassurance, no matter how frustrated you feel.
Think about letting your child’s preschool or school know about their anxiety. Sometimes this is useful, particularly before events like excursions, camps or carnivals.
Read about the stepladder approach. This gentle behaviour technique is recommended for helping children who have generalised anxiety.
Professional help for generalised anxiety
If you’re concerned about your child’s worrying or you think it’s affecting their enjoyment of life, consider seeking professional help.
You can get professional help from many sources, including:
- 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 centre or community health centre
- a specialist anxiety clinic (available in most states)
- your local mental health service.
There are also online programs to help children manage anxiety – for example, The BRAVE Program.
If your child is aged 5 years or older, they can talk with a counsellor at Kids Helpline 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
To get these rebates, your child will need a Mental Health Treatment 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 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 important to seek help.