What is generalised anxiety in children?

Generalised anxiety typically comes up when children reach school age. Younger children don’t usually have generalised anxiety.

Children with generalised anxiety might:

  • worry about lots 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 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 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 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, he’ll probably look to you for help and support. Here are some ways to help your child learn to handle generalised anxiety.

  • Encourage your child to ask you fewer questions like ‘What’s going to happen?’ If you’ve already answered the question, encourage your child to think about the situation, come up with the answers, and rely on her own judgment.
  • 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 by himself.
  • Think about whether to let your child’s school or preschool know about her anxiety. Sometimes it’s useful for the school to know about your child’s worries, particularly before events like excursions, camps or carnivals. But sometimes it’s good not to tell the teachers, so that when your child comes across something that makes her anxious she’ll learn to handle it on her own.
  • Try not to give your child constant reassurance, or help him avoid the things he worries 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 her worry or need for reassurance, no matter how frustrated you feel.
  • Make a conscious effort to foster your child’s self-esteem by giving him lots of positive attention, particularly when he’s 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

You know your child best. If you’re concerned 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 child health centre or community health centre
  • a specialist anxiety clinic (present in most states).

Financial support for children with anxiety
Your child might be able to get government funding to access a psychologist for individual or group sessions. Talk to your GP about the best option for your child.

Visit Australian Psychological Society – Find a psychologist 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 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 six months, it’s worth seeking help.