How To Spot Signs Of Anxiety In Your Child

By Ellie Barker

As I sat at my laptop I could feel my own anxiety levels rising.

Email after email pinged in continuously and each one, though different, was asking the same thing.

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Could you just…? Can you just…? Don’t forget to do this…! They weren’t from a boss or a demanding relative. They were from my son’s school. When the final one of the day arrived I was ready to scream.  

This one was a reminder of an evening being held ‘How to manage your child’s anxiety?’ Manage my child’s anxiety? Maybe if the parents were less anxious worrying about everything there was to remember for their child’s school this would be a start.

I slammed my laptop cover down making both my boys jump.

The following day I did some unscientific research at the school gates. Was it just me I wondered? Was I being oversensitive/fraught? Did I need to just get a grip? In many ways, I was relieved to see the feeling was being felt by all of my fellow school mum chums.

But it did make me think, should we really have to manage children’s anxiety at just seven? Wouldn’t it help them if we as parents and the school simply calmed down and stopped putting so much pressure on them and us?

When I asked Professor Cathy Creswell, a Clinical Advisor to Anxiety UK if it surprised her parents were being taught how to manage their children’s mental health at seven, she answered “no.”

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She went on to say: “In fact, this is a really good thing. Anxiety disorders are the most common type of emotional difficulty experienced across a lifespan, and we know that they have a particularly early onset with half of all people who have serious difficulties with anxiety first having those problems by the age of 11. Despite this, we have found in recent studies that a very small proportion of children who have problems with anxiety and their families receive any support, which is a terrible shame.”

But are there signs that as a society we are putting too much pressure on our children - parents and school included? “This is a tricky question as although the perception is often anxiety in children is becoming more common, we don’t have the data in the UK to properly test this.

This year a national survey of mental health in children and young people has been repeated for the first time since 2004, so soon we will be in a better position to see if anxiety in children is on the increase and if so why.

However we must remember we are getting much better at spotting difficulties, which is also a good thing. We work with many parents and carers who tell us that they or other family members had similar difficulties in the past that were never recognized or acted upon.”

But with the endless amount of clubs and after-school activities, plus the pressure of SATS tests bubbling away on the classroom sidelines, surely it is important that children are just allowed to ‘play?’

Professor Creswell says “It certainly fits with our understanding of anxiety to assume if children are in environments that instil a fear of failure then we will see increases in difficulties particularly among those children prone to anxiety.“

So how do you spot signs of anxiety?

Everyone experiences fear, worry or anxiety sometimes, but according to Professor Creswell, this is not necessarily anything to worry about. It can in some circumstances be helpful. But it becomes a problem when it is out of proportion to what is going on and interferes with everyday life.

Children with separation anxiety are typically concerned that something will happen to themselves or one or more of their parents/carers if they are not together. This can show itself through clinginess and difficulty separating to go to school or to a friend’s house. The child may become tearful or have a tantrum.

Children with social anxiety are normally worried about being evaluated in a negative way by others. They may worry that people think they are stupid or might do something others will laugh at. It can show itself through a reluctance to speak or eat or to take part in activities when certain people are present.

So what are Professor Creswell’s tips for preventing and managing problems?

A lot of parents worry that by talking about a problem like anxiety they may make it worse. The important thing is to think not about ‘whether’ you talk about it but ‘how’ you talk about it?

When you are talking about fears, be curious. Try to understand them. What do they think will happen and why?

Some children may not be able to say exactly what they are worried about beyond that they feel scared and get upset. But that’s ok. You can work with that.  

Acknowledge your child’s thoughts and feelings and show you appreciate how hard it must be.

To overcome their fears they will need to put them to the test. What can they/you do to find out if what they fear will really happen? For example if s/he is worried they will be taken if you are not there, could they try to be apart from you in a different part of the house for a short period of time?

Enlist others around you to help. If the difficulties are at school, speak to staff to make sure there is a teaching assistant or other adult who can get your child busy and involved in an engaging and important job on arrival.

Plan realistic rewards to help motivate your child.

Make sure your child knows how proud and impressed you are that they have put their fears to the test.

As for us as parents, one of my previously mentioned school mum chums said the wisest words to me, after another deluge of email requests. “We are after all only human and we can’t do it all, all of the time. Our children need to see this in us otherwise we will be giving them impossible standards they will feel they need to live up to."

I couldn’t agree more I thought as I deleted a batch of emails. I didn’t agree to volunteer to man the cake stall this time, but next time, when I have calmed down, count me in.

For further information visit anxietyuk.org.uk or call the helpline on 08444 775774.