What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural, normal feeling we all experience from time to time. It is our body’s way of preparing us for a challenge when faced with stress, by releasing a hormone called adrenaline. This causes a ‘fight or flight’ response so that we are alert and ready to react to the challenge. So anxiety can be useful and helpful when we face new or stressful situations.
How much anxiety is ‘normal’?
All children and young people get anxious at times, and this is a normal part of their development as they grow up, and develop their ‘survival skills’ so they can face challenges in the wider world. In addition, we all have different levels of stress we can cope with - some people are just naturally more anxious than others, and are quicker to get stressed or worried.
But if you think your child’s anxiety is getting in the way of their day to day life, slowing down their development, or having a significant effect on their schooling or relationships, it is best to try and help them tackle it.
What does anxiety feel like?
Anxiety causes a number of reactions in the body, which can feel very unpleasant: They include...
- Feeling shaky, feeling sick or having stomach cramps, or feeling dizzy or faint.
- Breathing fast or finding it hard to breathe,
- Heart beating fast (palpitations), sweating, tense muscles
- Feeling like you might die.
These reactions are designed to make us feel uncomfortable so we are alert and able to respond quickly to danger.
But anxiety which happens often, or at the wrong time, can affect the behaviour and thoughts of the anxious person in negative ways.
These can include...
- Feeling scared, panicky, embarrassed or ashamed a lot of the time.
- Not having the confidence to try new things, face challenges or even carry on as normal
- Finding it hard to concentrate, or having problems with sleeping or eating.
- Having angry outbursts where the person gets very angry very quickly and feels ‘out of control’.
- Worries or negative thoughts going round and round the person’s head, or thinking that bad things are going to happen all the time.
If someone is very anxious they might feel they may feel they have to do or say certain things, or bad things will happen.
“My daughter was really anxious and wouldn’t go to bed at night. We tried everything but it just got worse and worse”
What causes anxiety?
The causes of anxiety can be complicated and it might not be one thing alone that is causing it.
We all have different levels of stress we are comfortable with. Being anxious or a ‘worrier’ can run in families - many parents whose children are anxious also remember being anxious in their own childhoods, and are keen to support their children so they don’t suffer in the same way. Personality type and temperament can also be a factor – some children are simply born more anxious or ‘nervous’ than others.
Having experienced difficult or stressful events in childhood can also cause anxiety. For example frequent house or school moves can cause children and young people to find it hard to settle – they may be always anticipating that things will change again. Divorce and separation, and having new step parents or step siblings can also cause anxiety at first, although most children settle down after a while. Seeing parents arguing or fighting, or suffering from abuse from parents, relatives or strangers can lead to anxiety. Bereavement, physical illness or injury, or having someone in the family who is ill or disabled can also cause anxiety, particularly around health.
Other current or past factors can include worries about school work or exams, bullying, friendship problems, worries about money or housing, involvement in crime, gangs or drug culture, worries about appearance, relationship problems and family disputes.
Some conditions such as autism, Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD can have increased anxiety as part of the symptoms, which may be due to neurological differences in the way the brain functions. Children and young people with these conditions can really benefit from help to recognise and manage their anxiety, although the underlying condition will remain.
What problems can anxiety lead to?
If a child or young person is very anxious it can affect the whole family. Parents and siblings might be worried about upsetting the anxious person and might have to change or cancel activities and routines to accommodate the anxiety.
Anxious young people may not want to go out in public, they can find it hard to see friends, take part in activities or meet new people. This can affect their relationships and their development.
Anxiety can prevent children and young people from doing their best at school and sometimes from attending school or college at all, which will affect their learning and their opportunities later in life.
Parents of anxious children often find they become very anxious themselves, as they try to protect their child from stressful situations or worry in advance about how they will react.
“ I was so upset that my son was getting anxious about things, that it made the situation worse – I was always on the lookout for problems and couldn’t help him calm down as I was too stressed and angry myself”
Long-term anxiety can have a very negative effect on the child and their family so it is best to address it as soon as you realise it is a problem.
Different Types of Anxiety:
Many children go through stages of ‘separation anxiety’ between the ages of 1 and 3, when they become more aware of their surroundings, and may cling to mum, dad or their carers, cry a lot and get upset in new situations or with new people. This is a part of normal development but it can be difficult for child and parents, especially if the child is starting with a childminder or going to nursery or playgroup.
If older children are experiencing separation anxiety, they may worry that something bad will happen to their parents or carers, which can stop them from feeling able to go out or try new things. This might be a sign that they are feeling insecure about something. They might be reacting to changes in their home life, such as moving house, a new sibling or someone in their family who is ill or has died.
Fear and Phobias:
Again, it is normal for younger children to go through stages of being scared of particular things. For example, they may be worried about dogs, water, the dark, being on their own or monsters and ghosts. There is often no obvious reason for them to be scared of that particular thing, and the child can get very upset and seem irrational when faced with the thing they fear. Most children gradually grow out of these fears as they get older.
If your child does not grow out of their fear or their fear starts to affect their daily life and their ability to cope, it may have become a phobia. Common phobias in older children include germs, lifts, dogs and social situations. The child or young person may go to great lengths to avoid the thing that they are worried about, which can be very disruptive. If this is the case, they may need to have some professional help to overcome it (see further on in this leaflet).
Many children become anxious about school or things that happen at school. This may be about schoolwork, bullying, friendship issues or just the school environment, which can seem very overwhelming. Anxiety can happen when changing schools or moving up a stage, particularly from primary to secondary.
Children who are anxious about school may get headaches or tummy aches in the morning, feel sick or cry before school. They may feel too anxious to go in to school at all, which can be extremely difficult for the child and their parents, and can have a serious effect on their education and friendships. If a child is not able to go to school due to anxiety, professional help will be needed to support them (see further on)
“My son would cry and cry before school, he would get so hysterical that we couldn’t get him out of the car. In the end he stopped going in as we couldn’t face the daily battle.”
This is anxiety about social situations. Children or young people who experience it might feel nervous of social situations, dread being in groups, and find it hard to talk to friends or people they don’t know. They might feel very self-conscious and think people are looking at them or judging them negatively. They may have physical symptoms such as shaking, breathing fast or sweating in social situations. They might worry a lot about past social incidents, getting stressed about how they might have come across.
If a child or young person is anxious, worried or stressed about things all or most of the time, with no particular or obvious reason, and this has a severe or negative effect on their day to day lives, they may have ‘generalised anxiety’. This usually requires some professional help. (see further on in this leaflet for information on getting professional help)
Panic attacks are overwhelming feelings of extreme anxiety that come on suddenly and usually last for about ten minutes. During a panic attack the person has difficulties breathing and feels very unwell, overwhelmed and out of control. The feelings gradually calm down and go away usually in about ten minutes but can leave the person feeling shaken and nervous. Having panic attacks can be very frightening, and can affect the child or young person’s confidence and hold them back in their ability to go to school and take part in activities.
Obsessions and Compulsions:
Some very anxious people get stuck in a negative cycle of thoughts and behaviours. They can have negative thoughts which are very strong and hard to ignore, (these are called obsessions), and can feel that the only way to stop bad things from happening is to repeat certain actions or check things over and over again (these are called compulsions). If it is severe, this behaviour can develop into what is called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, an anxiety-related disorder.
It is fairly common for young children to want to have very fixed routines if they are feeling anxious, or to play the same game over and over again – they may be using these ‘rituals’ to comfort themselves or to help them think through something they are going through. But if you are aware that your child’s obsessions or compulsions are starting to rule their lives or interfere in family life, it is best to seek professional help.
Selective Mutism: An anxiety disorder which is diagnosed when a child or young person is unable to speak in one or more social settings (for example, at school, in public places, with adults), but is able to speak comfortably in other settings (for example, at home with their family). People who have selective mutism understand language use but their anxiety stops them from speaking. It is more than ‘shyness’.