Health Agenda

Mental Health

How to help an anxious child

Every child feels scared or stressed sometimes. But more serious childhood anxiety can affect the whole family. Here’s how parents can help children to feel less anxious.   

As much as we wish we could shield our children from the anxieties of life, they too will face new, stressful or worrying situations that might cause their heart to race, palms to sweat and butterflies to flap up a storm in their tummy. 

Thankfully, these big feelings often disappear quickly. But if they don’t, children can feel overwhelmed, panicked or simply very sad. 

With the right tools you can help your child manage anxiety they experience and get them through more difficult or challenging times.   

How will I know if my child has anxiety? 

It’s common for young people (from children to teens) to experience some level of anxiety as they travel through life’s challenges. These ‘normal’ feelings may include being shy or getting upset about things that may happen in the future, like being left at childcare or school, worrying about schoolwork or what friends think of them.

It’s helpful to let your child know that worrying is their body’s way of protecting them from threats and danger (the fight or flight response). But when their anxiety stops protecting them and becomes a problem in itself, they may need some extra support.  

It’s not easy to recognise anxiety in a child because young people often have strong feelings that they find hard to control or label. The good news is that no one knows your child better than you, so you’re in the best position to help them and notice when things seem a little off.

Anxiety checklist

Anxiety can look and feel different to each child, but if your youngster is experiencing one or more of these symptoms for 2 weeks or more, they may have anxiety:

  • Complaints of physical problems like sleeplessness, headaches, stomach aches and tiredness.
  • Avoiding situations that worry or scare them.
  • Avoiding new things, places or people.
  • Worrying about the right way to do things.
  • Clinging to trusted adults.
  • Needing lots of reassurance.
  • Regularly feeling nervous or tense.
  • Feelings of uncontrollable or overwhelming panic.
  • Asking lots of questions repeatedly in new situations (e.g. “What if...?” or “What’s going to happen when...?”).

How to treat child anxiety

How we feel as adults is often shaped by early childhood experiences, meaning caring for our children’s mental health is crucial.

If you think your little one is suffering from anxiety that’s affecting their overall wellbeing and happiness, it’s important to seek professional help. 

Calm Kid Central is a service for children aged 4-12, and their parents, and can support families with youngsters who are experiencing big feelings and tough life challenges. HCF members may be eligible for free memberships.

Your GP or pediatrician, a mental-health service, psychologist or your child’s school counsellor will also be able to guide you on the best course of action.

There are also things you can do at home to help your child work through their anxious feelings, says clinical psychologist Nikita Singh.

Here we list many of them, but remember, not every strategy will work for every child. You know your child best, so choose the kind of approach you think they might best respond to.

Tell social stories 

‘For children under 10 years old it can be helpful to use a social story about what is likely to happen in certain situations,’ says Nikita. ‘If your child is feeling nervous about an event, for example, tell them what they can expect in as much detail as you can to reduce the question marks they have.’ This includes explaining who will be there, what people may talk about and which activities they may be asked to do.

Use reassuring language 

Try saying things like, ‘I’m here for you’, ‘Can you tell me more about how you feel?’, ‘What might make you feel better about that?’, or ‘What can I do to help you feel better?’.

Normalise anxiety 

‘Parents can be role models for their children,’ says Nikita. ‘I encourage parents to narrate their feelings of anxiety or worry.’  
 
For example, if you’re preparing for a job interview, say what you feel anxious about, but also what you’re going to do to cope, like, ‘I’m feeling nervous because I want to do well, and I’m going to count to 10 in my head and take some deep breaths before I start.’’

Label the worry 

‘It’s helpful for children to externalise their anxiety,’ says Nikita, suggesting if children see their anxiety as outside of themselves, they might be able to find ways to control it. ‘Parents can help by saying, “I can see you’re feeling worried because your shoulders are tense and you’re biting your nails.”’

Calm the physical effects 

The physical effects of anxiety can be scary for a child. Their heart may be racing, they may have butterflies in their stomach or even nausea. Help them cope by teaching them this simple breathing exercise. 

  • Breathe in deeply for 3 seconds. Hold for 3 then let the breath out for 3. 
  • Repeat until the uncomfortable feeling eases. 

It’s amazing how such an easy exercise can have such a powerful effect.

Set aside time to worry 

It sounds counterintuitive, but making time to worry can also help your child work through their feelings. Set aside 10-15 minutes each day to talk about their fears. You may want to give them a ‘worry doll’ they can speak to or, for older kids, encourage them to write their feelings down on a piece of paper. When the time is up, they can pack their doll away or put their piece of paper into a ‘worry box’ and get on with their day, hopefully unburdened of their worries and in a lighter mood.

Getting help with child anxiety 

HCF members who've had hospital or extras cover for 12 months have access to Calm Kid Central^, an online educational and support program to help kids aged 4–11 learn to act bravely and confidently, behave in positive ways, develop good friendships and manage tough life situations.

The program provides fast and confidential access to a team of experienced child psychologists as well as courses, video lessons, activities, and animations to help them understand and better manage their feelings. There are also resources for children who are worried or unsettled by COVID-19.

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Where to find extra help for kids’ mental health support:

Words by Lindy Alexander
Updated May 2021

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^To access Calm Kid Central you must have hospital or extras cover for 12 months with a child aged 4-11 on your policy, excludes Accident Only cover and Overseas Visitors Health Cover.