Anxiety, worries and fear: a normal part of childhood
It’s normal for children to show signs of anxiety, worries and fears sometimes. In most cases, anxiety in children and fears in childhood come and go and don’t last long.
In fact, different anxieties often develop at different stages. 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 or 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 eight 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, 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 she sees a dog and also worry about visiting a friend with a pet dog.
How to support your child with anxiety
If your child shows signs of normal childhood anxiety, you can support him in several ways:
- Acknowledge your child’s fear – don’t dismiss or ignore it.
- Gently encourage your child to do things she’s anxious about, but don’t push her to face situations she doesn’t want to face.
- Wait until your child actually gets anxious before you step in to help.
- Praise your child for doing something he’s anxious about, rather than criticising him for being afraid.
- Avoid labelling your child as ‘shy’ or ‘anxious’.
Types of anxiety in children
Children experience several types of anxiety. A child might have only one type of anxiety, or she might show features of several of them.
Social anxiety in children
Social anxiety is fear and worry in situations where children have to interact with other people, or be the focus of attention. Children with social anxiety might:
- believe that others will think badly of or laugh at them
- be shy or withdrawn
- have difficulty meeting other children or joining in groups
- have only a few friends
- avoid social situations where they might be the focus of attention or stand out from others – for example, talking on the telephone and asking or answering questions in class.
Our article on social anxiety has information and tips on helping your child.
Separation anxiety in children
Separation anxiety is the fear and worry children experience when they can’t be with their parents or carers. Children with separation anxiety might:
- protest, cry or struggle when being separated from their parents or carers
- worry about getting hurt or having an accident (they might worry about their parents or themselves)
- refuse to go to or stay at day care, preschool or school by themselves
- refuse to sleep at other people’s homes without their parents or carers
- feel sick when separated from their parents or carers.
Our article on separation anxiety has information and tips on helping your child.
Generalised anxiety in children
Children with generalised anxiety tend to worry about many areas of life – anything from friends at playgroup to world events. Children with generalised anxiety might:
- worry about things like health, schoolwork, school or sporting achievements, money, safety, world events and so on
- feel the need to get everything perfect
- feel 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
- feel sick when worried.
Our article on generalised anxiety has information and tips on helping your child.
Read about the stepladder approach, a gentle behaviour technique that can be used to help children who experience different anxieties.
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 him from doing things he wants to do or interfering with his friendships, schoolwork or family life
- your child’s 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 eight years
- your child’s reactions seem unusually severe – for example, your child might show extreme distress or be very hard to settle when you leave him.
Severe anxiety can impact on 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.
Finding professional help and treatment for children with anxiety
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 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 5-8 years, he 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
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. It doesn’t matter how old your child is.
Causes of anxiety in children
Some people are more likely to be anxious because anxiety runs in the family – just like eye colour, for example.
People can also learn to think and behave in an anxious way by watching others, or by going through scary experiences.
Certain things in a child’s environment might also increase the child’s chances of becoming anxious. For example, if a parent is overprotective of a shy child, it might help the child in the short term, but it can increase the child’s anxiety overall.