What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear that is experienced as a combination of physical sensations, thoughts and feelings.
All children and young people feel worried sometimes, and this is a normal part of growing up. At certain points, such as on their first day of school or before an exam, young people may become more worried, but will soon be able to calm down and feel better.
Anxiety can become a problem when a young person feels stuck in it, or when it feels like an overwhelming, distressing or unmanageable experience. If this kind of worrying goes on for a long time, it can leave a young person feeling exhausted and isolated, and limit the things they feel able to do.
If your child is struggling with anxiety, there are things you can do to help them – including providing emotional support, working on practical strategies together and finding the right professional help if they need it.
What makes young people anxious?
A young person may feel anxious for a number of different reasons, depending on the individual. If your child is feeling unmanageable amounts of worry and fear, this is often a sign that something in their life isn’t right and they need support to work out what the problem is.
The following kinds of things can make some children and young people feel more anxious:
- experiencing lots of change in a short space of time, such as moving house or school
- having responsibilities that are beyond their age and development, for example caring for other people in their family
- being around someone who is very anxious, such as a parent
- struggling at school, including feeling overwhelmed by work, exams or peer groups
- experiencing family stress around things like housing, money and debt
- going through distressing or traumatic experiences in which they do not feel safe, such as being bullied or witnessing or experiencing abuse.
This video by Braive (2m 30s) is a useful way of understanding how stress and anxiety can build up in a person's life.
Symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety tends to affect a young person’s body, thoughts and feelings. They may also behave differently, including turning to certain coping behaviours to try to avoid or manage their anxiety.
- panic attacks, which can include having a racing heart, breathing very quickly, sweating or shaking
- shallow or quick breathing, or feeling unable to breathe
- feeling sick
- dry mouth
- sweating more than usual
- tense muscles
- wobbly legs
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diarrhoea or needing to pee more than usual
- getting very hot
Thoughts and feelings:
- preoccupied by upsetting, scary or negative thoughts
nervous, on edge, panicky or frightened
- overwhelmed or out of control
- full of dread or an impending sense of doom
- alert to noises, smells or sights
- worrying about being unable to cope with daily things like school, friendships and being in groups or social situations
- worrying so much that it is difficult to concentrate and/or sleep
- withdrawing or isolating themselves – including not wanting to go to school, be in social or group situations, be away from parents or try new things
- repeating certain behaviours, actions or rituals (often called ‘obsessive compulsive behaviours’)
- eating more or less than usual
How to help your child in an anxious moment
When your child is in the middle of a very anxious moment, they may feel frightened, agitated or worried about having a panic attack. The important thing to do in the moment is to help them calm down and feel safe.
These strategies can help:
Breathe slowly and deeply together.
You can count slowly to five as you breathe in, and then five as you breathe out. If this is too much, try starting with shorter counts. If it works for them, gradually encourage your child to breathe out for one or two counts longer than they breathe in, as this can help their body relax.
Sit with them and offer calm physical reassurance.
Feeling you nearby, or holding your hand or having a cuddle if it’s possible, can be soothing.
Try using all five senses together.
Connecting with what they can see, touch, hear, smell and taste can bring them closer to the present moment and reduce the intensity of their anxiety. You might think together about five things they can see, four things they can touch, three things they can hear, two things they can smell and one thing they can taste.
Reassure them that the anxiety will pass and that they will be okay.
It can be helpful to describe it as a wave that they can ride or surf until it peaks, breaks and gets smaller.
Ask them to think of a safe and relaxing place or person in their mind.
If you haven’t tried this before, agree with them when they’re feeling calm what this place or person is. It could be their bedroom, a grandparent’s house, a favourite place in nature or somewhere they’ve been on holiday. Sometimes holding a memento of a relaxing place, like a seashell or pebble, can help.
Encourage them to do something that helps them to feel calmer.
This could be running, walking, listening to music, painting, drawing or colouring-in, writing in a journal, watching a favourite film or reading a favourite book.
Remember that everyone is different, and that over time you and your child can work together to find the things that work best for them in these moments.
How to help your child manage their anxiety
Outside of moments when your child is feeling particularly anxious or panicky, there are things you can do over time to help them manage their anxiety and feel better.
A lot of these strategies are about helping your child to understand themselves and find out what works for them. The more confident they feel about helping themselves when things are hard, the more they will believe in their ability to cope – helping to reduce feelings of panic.
Ask them what it feels like in their mind and body, and what things make them feel that way. It can be tempting to dismiss their worries because you want to reassure them, but it’s important to empathise with their experience and validate their feelings. You can find more tips on our guide to starting a conversation.
This could include a friendship, a relationship with a family member, their schoolwork or a combination of things. Are there changes that could be made at home or school that would make things easier? If your child is worrying about things that are outside of their control, it might help to name together who is responsible for managing the problem – for example, you might say, “worrying about money is the parents’ job”.
Anxiety might make them feel sick or make their heart race. Getting to know these signs can make them less frightening and overwhelming when they happen. It can also empower them to know when to ask for help or to do something to help themselves.
Your child could try doing exercise, drawing or painting, writing in a journal, watching a favourite film, talking to friends or cooking and baking. These kinds of activities can help them to feel calmer.
It might help your child to write down their worries and put them in a worry box, giving them a physical place where their worries can be ‘held’. Or they might prefer a self-soothe box (see video below), which they can fill with things that help them when they feel anxious – like photos, fidget toys, scented oils and positive quotes. You can find out how to make a worry box by reading our guide for parents.
These are physical exercise, sleeping well, eating healthily, drinking water and spending quality time with loved ones. Regular exercise is particularly important for anxiety because it can help to reduce the symptoms in the body. It doesn’t have to be strenuous – walking or gentle yoga can help.
Reducing or stopping drinking coffee, caffeinated drinks and alcohol can help because these can all trigger the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Even if it’s just for a little while, you can help your child take their mind off their worries by having fun, relaxing and laughing. Activities like playing a sport, sewing or playing musical instruments are great for focusing the mind on the moment.
Some children and young people with anxiety will need professional and specialist help to feel better. They may benefit from a specific diagnosis or a treatment such as medication or talking therapy. You can find more information about this below.
I felt that we lost the idea that it’s important to validate their feelings rather than dismiss them. But I think this is a really important point that we shouldn’t lose.
I’ve found it helpful when talking about anxiety to think about achievable goals for overcoming worries that stop them from doing things, and then to create stages like a ladder to get to them.
Young people tell us it helps to...
- find positive activities you enjoy
- think about something you’re looking forward to
- do physical exercise
- learn mindfulness and yoga
- imagine your thoughts leaving your brain and floating off into the sky
- keep yourself occupied
- have time out
- reflect on how you’re feeling
- talk to other people you trust
- remind yourself you’re not alone – odds are someone in your friendship circle has anxiety or depression too
Finding professional help
It’s a good idea to seek professional support if self-help strategies are not making the situation better and anxiety is affecting your child’s life - for example if they are feeling persistently anxious, often having distressing thoughts, or avoiding things like going outside or speaking to others.
There are different places where you can find help for your child. Your GP, your child's school and considering whether counselling or therapy might help are good places to start.
You can find out more about speaking to GPs, finding a counsellor or therapist, accessing Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), getting help from your child’s school and finding local services on our guide to getting help for your child.
The type of support or treatment offered will depend on your child’s age and the kind of anxiety they are experiencing. Talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help your child to understand the thoughts and feelings behind their anxiety and find practical strategies to help them cope. You can find out more about different types of talking therapies on our guide to counselling and therapy.
Medication may be offered if your child’s anxiety is very difficult to manage or talking therapy has not helped. Medication should be suggested alongside talking therapies or another psychological treatment, and by a doctor who specialises in children’s mental health. Read our medication guide to find out more about the different types of medication your child might be offered.
You can find out more about speaking to GPs, finding a counsellor or therapist, accessing CAMHS, getting help from your child’s school and finding local services on our guide to getting help for your child.
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Where to get further support
Useful helplines and websites
Supports people struggling with panic attacks, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and other anxiety-related issues - and provides support and information for their carers.
Offers a specialist youth helpline for people aged 13-20. The opening hours are 3pm - 6pm, Monday - Friday; 6pm - 8pm, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Call 01952 680835 for a recorded breathing exercise to help you through a panic attack (available 24/7).
Information about call costs here.
- Opening times:
- 10am - 10pm, 365 days a year
Offers support and information to anybody affected by obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Website provides information and advice to help you access treatment.
- Opening times:
- 9:30am - 8pm, Monday - Friday
If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.
Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.
Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.
- Opening times:
Text YM to 85258.
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 are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus.
Texts can be anonymous, but if the volunteer believes you are at immediate risk of harm, they may share your details with people who can provide support.
- Opening times: