Anxiety in school age children
School age is an exciting time for children. It's a time when your child makes new friends, meets new people and becomes more independent. They also come across new rules, routines and experiences - so do you! But sometimes this new world takes getting used to. Worrying about this can affect your child's behaviour and wellbeing.
If your child is finding these changes difficult, that's OK. There is plenty of help, advice and guidance to support you and your child through this time.
Read time: 5 minutes
Throughout their school years, children experience many new things. The thought of moving to a new school, making new friends or even taking exams for the first time can be really scary! But these worries and fears are a part of growing up. And they generally pass quickly.
Feeling anxious once in a while is common. But if your child is often, or always, affected by anxiety they can feel stressed. When these anxious feelings don't go away, children can feel drained and exhausted. And even become ill.
There are various types of anxiety. Finding out what kind of anxiety it is will help you and your child to manage how they feel. Here are common types of anxiety, do you recognise the symptoms?
- General anxiety: Some children get anxious for a time for no obvious reason. If it gets really bad, your child will find it hard to concentrate and learn.
- Social anxiety: This is when your child gets worried by new people in social situations. Your child may try to avoid meeting people outside of your usual circle of family and friends. They may also find it hard to make new friends.
- Separation anxiety: This is when your child feels very anxious when you leave them. It can happen before and during separation from a parent or caregiver. It can continue even when your child becomes a teenager, and beyond. So, that means going to school and staying at friends' houses can be stressful.
- Phobias: A phobia is when your child is has a fear of a situation, place, object, animal or feeling. Like being so afraid of spiders or going to the dentist that it can make them feel sick and do anything to avoid it.
What can cause anxiety in school age children?
It's easy to be confused or upset by things at a young age. Children can feel anxious for lots of reasons. There are common situations that cause these feelings, inside and outside of school.
Some reasons your child feels anxious could be:
- Feeling upset by big changes in their life
- Struggles at school, with work or other children
- Scary events, such as bullying or the death of a family member
- Feeling tired when given too many chores at home
- Time with friends or family who have stress or anxiety
No parent likes the idea that their child may be hurting. If you are worried about your child, think about any stress they've had recently. Spotting causes early can help you talk with your child and ease their feelings.
What are the common symptoms of anxiety?
Children feel anxiety just like adults. The problem is most children won't be able to explain their feelings! Here are some signs that could show your child is struggling with anxiety. And might need your support.
These clues include:
- No concentration
- Poor sleep or bad dreams
- Grumpy or unusual behaviour
- Complaining about feeling sick or unwell
- Tense muscles
- Panic attacks or trouble breathing and swallowing
- Dry mouth
- Using the toilet more often
- Worrying about everyday activities
Anxiety can also show itself in the way children help themselves handle it. They might start avoiding social situations. Or engaging in obsessive behaviours like being scared of dirt and illness. Or asking the same questions over and over. If their anxiety gets really bad, your child might change their eating habits. Or even self-harm, like pulling their hair or picking skin.
How to help your child manage their anxiety
Talking is so important when helping your child deal with their anxiety. Make sure your child knows you understand how they feel and that they are not alone. And remember you are not alone in helping them! It's also useful to help your child understand what anxiety can do to them, so that they can cope better.
The NHS suggests "it may be helpful to describe anxiety as being like a wave that builds up and then ebbs away again".
Helping your child to find ways to cope means helping your child to face their feelings. If they are worried about a social event, your gut feeling might be to avoid it. But be brave! Talk to your child and put a plan in place to help them cope. This should help stop fears they might have that anxiety is stopping them from doing things. It can also give them back a feeling of control.
If you are concerned about your child's anxiety, you should ask for professional help.
The best way to get the help they need is through their GP. They may suggest a tools or a service that could help. If it's really bad they may refer them. To the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) for example, for assessment. And a plan for support and treatment.
Top tips from the NHS to help ease anxiety in children
Read time: 2 minutes
- Teach your child to know when they are feeling anxious
- Tell your child to ask for help when they feel stressed or worried
- Stick to daily routines as much as you can
- If your child is anxious because of upcoming events, you could look for books or films about such events. These will help them to understand what to expect
- Prepare children for big events, like moving house, by explaining what is going to happen and why
- Resist becoming too protective or anxious yourself. if you are calm your child is likely to sense this and feel better too
- Practice ways to relax with your child. Like taking three deep, slow breaths, breathing in for three and out for three
Other tips for dealing with anxiety include:
- Rest and relaxation. It's harder for your child to deal with emotions when they are tired, so make sure they get plenty of rest! Help your child relax with calm music or stories.
- Exercise. Getting moving can help! Exercise uses up the nervous energy that anxiety can create. This lessens its effect on the body.
- Grounding techniques. These can help control anxiety's effects. They do this by helping your child to focus on the here and now instead of their worries. Good examples of grounding techniques include counting down from 100. Or naming an animal for each letter of the alphabet. Or listing things that they can see and hear.
- Create a worry box. You may not always have time to tackle the cause of a worry at the moment anxiety hits. A worry box gives a chance to talk about your child's fears when you have plenty of time. Get your child to write about their worries before posting them into a box. You can then find time to talk through them together, like at the end of the day.
Taking care of yourself
Don't forget to take care of yourself and ask for help if you need to! Try not to blame yourself for the struggles that your child is going through. The more positive you can stay, the better your child will cope with their anxiety.
It's also important you know that you and your child are not alone. If you need some advice, help, or simply someone to talk to, there are many websites and support services available.
Remember, if nothing else seems to be working, speak to your GP. They can refer your child to your local CAMHS, who will provide you and your child with all the expert support that you need.
Information from external websites
Action for Children have some top tips on how to help when your child feels anxious. They also have an activity you could do together that show how thoughts and feeling are connected. And another to teach your child how to calm anxious thoughts.
The NHS offers advice for parents of children with anxiety
The Royal College of Psychiatrists shares detailed information for parents on worries anxieties and helping children to cope.
Safe Space Health UK is a website for young people aged 11 - 14 in Surrey. It offers helpful information about emotional health, lifestyle choices, relationships, keeping safe, growing up and being okay with being different.
Young Minds a helpful section for parents supporting an anxious child.
Barnardo's Family Space share useful ideas for understanding and responding to behaviour in 4-8 year olds and also for routines and behaviour for 8-12 year olds
Struggling and need to talk?
Action for Children offer 1:1 chat with a parenting coach (Mon - Fri). If they are closed you can leave a message and a parenting coach will get back to you within 3 working days.
Family Lives have a free, confidential helpline, offering emotional support, information, advice and guidance on any aspect of parenting and family life. Call the Family Lives helpline on 0808 800 2222 (Monday to Friday from 9am to 9pm and on weekends from 10am to 3pm).
NSPCC has a free, confidential helpline for parents looking for advice. Call 0808 800 5000 (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends).
The Surrey Children and Family Health Advice Line is available from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (excluding Bank Holidays). They can provide support on all aspects of child health, development and parenting for families with children from birth to 19 years old. Call the Surrey-wide 0-19 Advice Line on 01883 340 922
Young Minds has a free parents helpline. For detailed advice, emotional support and signposting about your teen call 0808 802 5544 (9:30am to 4pm, Monday to Friday)
For your child
Childline have a free and confidential helpline for children. You could encourage your child to call 0800 1111 if they need to speak to someone - open 7 days a week from 7.30am - 3.30am. Childline also have a 1-2-1 counsellor chat for children who don't want to speak on the phone.
If your child is 11 or older you might want to tell them about the Child and Family Health Surrey text service called ChatHealth. It's a confidential school nurse messaging service for young people aged 11-19. Young people can contact their school nurse in confidence by text. The Chat Health text number is: 07507 329 951 (Mon - Fri 9am - 5pm).
All of the issues discussed are confidential unless a child's safety, or that of others, is at risk. The school nurses will always encourage young people to discuss issues with their parents or guardians.
Useful videos on anxiety in school age children
Family Lives share this useful video on separation anxiety
Shout shares a breathing exercise to help with anxiety
You might see if your child wants to learn how to make a self-soothe box
The Families Under Pressure video collection offers a great series of short top tips videos on managing behaviour and help with negative emotions. Perfect for when your family leave you feeling frazzled!
Helpful tools and apps
Action for Children has a quick guide to spotting if your child has low self-esteem
Kooth is a free online counselling and emotional well-being platform for children and young people aged 11 - 18. Accessible through mobile, tablet and desktop 365 days a year on Monday to Friday from 12pm–10pm and Saturday and Sunday from 6pm until 10pm.
Your teen can sign up here
You might want to suggest your teen tries the MeeTwo App. it is free, and allows peer to peer support for 11-25 year olds in a forum monitored by trained adults. If your 11 year old posts a question, only other 11 year olds will see the post and be able to respond. Adults monitor questions and answers and hand the question to a counsellor if they feel the child needs more than peer support.
You might want to teach your child this breathing exercise from the NHS
NSPCC has a great guide on positive parenting.
Reading Well list a number of books recommended by health experts to support your child with anxiety.
Surrey's Family Learning and Adult Learning teams have developed a family wellbeing resource, with lots of tips on looking after yourself and your family during these challenging times.
Young Minds also provides free, 24/7 text support for young people across the UK experiencing a mental health crisis. All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors. Texts can be anonymous, but if the volunteer believes your teen is in immediate risk of harm, they may share their details with people who can provide support. Text YM to 85258.
There are lots of Apps designed to help support anxiety. ORCHA has reviewed loads of apps so you can find the best and safest.
And the NHS have an App Library of NHS assessed Apps.
Online parenting guides
Surrey residents get free access to three online guides that include top tips from childcare, education and NHS health experts.
How to register
Registration is quick and easy. Go to the OurPlace website and use the access code 'ACORN' to get your free guides.
Access to the guides is unlimited with no expiry date, so you can return as and when you need and want to. Why not watch the Child and Family Health video to find out more.
Community support, courses and local help
Choose the area you live in for local services. Please note that due to coronavirus (Covid-19) very few community services are currently running.
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Date published: 03 Mar 2021