Health Agenda

Mental Health

How to help your child with anxiety

Understanding what anxiety in children is, and where it comes from, can help parents support stressed-out youngsters.

With jobs to do, bills to pay and endless activities to organise, parents often daydream about going back to simpler times of being a kid – when all we had to worry about was which part of the playground was most fun and who was coming to our birthday party.

The truth is, it looks easier in hindsight, though childhood throws constant challenges for our kids – emotional, physical and mental.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare state that anxiety disorders are the second-most common mental disorder affecting Australian children aged 4-11 (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD, being the most common).

Understanding what anxiety is, why it happens and how it affects children specifically, may help us to better support our little ones overcome these issues.

What is anxiety?

Believe it or not, anxiety, even in a child, is an important survival instinct and something we all need to experience. Without it, we’d be in constant danger of behaving recklessly, like crossing the road without looking.

“Anxiety keeps us safe,” says child psychologist Rita Princi-Hubbard. “It happens when part of your brain, called the amygdala, senses danger and so starts to give your body fuel to either run or fight. The issue is that when there is no real danger, your body is suddenly flooded with all of this extra fuel and nothing to do with it. This can cause symptoms like a racing heart, sweaty palms, dizziness and nausea.”

While we once needed a rush of adrenaline or oxygen to help us run from a lion, and we may still need it to escape a burning building, anxiety is seeing danger when there is no real threat, but our body still reacts as if the threat is real.

What causes anxiety in children?

Like us, our children are individuals, so an issue that may cause high anxiety in one child – say a public-speaking competition at school – won’t bother another child at all.

Anxiety disorders can also be caused by factors that could be ongoing, like trauma or illness, grief, or simply not feeling safe or loved.

Childhood is the time when we learn how to be and behave in the world around us. If children do not feel safe, loved, seen or appreciated, this can be a factor for developing anxiety disorders.

Here are the most common anxiety disorders in primary-school children:

Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) – An excessive and ongoing high level of worry or irritation about things that might happen to themselves or a loved one. Children with GAD might worry about how smart or popular they are, tend to lack confidence, and constantly look for reassurance from those around them.

Phobias – While many of us might not love the idea of the spider on the ceiling, or avoid high places, a phobia only becomes a disorder when a child becomes debilitated by the thing they’re afraid of. This may mean they’re unable to do things they would otherwise enjoy.

Social phobia – Children who experience anxiety as a social phobia are often extremely shy and find it hard to make friends. They’ll avoid speaking in public or anything that puts them in the spotlight.

Separation anxiety disorder – Considered normal up until the age of two, children who have extreme fear or distress at the thought of being away from their parents or primary carers, so much so that it leads to tantrums or crying, may be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder. Children with this disorder may fake illness to avoid activities – like school or playdates – that would lead to being separated from their parents or carers.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – Usually following being witness to a violent event, such as an accident or assault, or an experience of high trauma, including a life-threatening situation, children with PTSD may experience ‘flashbacks’ where they feel like they’re seeing the trauma in real time. They also may recreate the event through drawings or at play, and have trouble sleeping or concentrating.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – Often starting in late childhood, anxiety arising from OCD, according to Better Health Victoria, occurs when a child has “recurrent and persistent thoughts, images or impulses that are intrusive and unwanted (obsessions). Children with OCD also perform repetitive and ritualistic actions that are excessive, time-consuming and distressing (compulsions).” Common obsessions over dirt or germs can lead to a compulsion to over-wash their hands or clothing.

Why does my child have anxiety?

If there’s nothing obvious causing feelings of worry or high stress in your child – like an illness, death in the family or a traumatic event – it’s worth thinking about how you’re feeling and behaving. Could your child be picking up anxious signals from you or someone else close to them?

“Sensitive kids are like emotional vacuum cleaners, sucking up everyone else’s emotions,” says Rita, who says to think about if your child could be modelling behaviour from a parent, sibling or friend.

Self-critical thinking may also lead to feelings of anxiety, says Rita. “For example, if we continually tell our giggling children to ‘stop and be quiet!’ then they may start to question if they’re allowed to be happy.”

That’s not to say we should feel guilty for our own emotional outbursts, but, as Rita advises, “If you do say something when you’re mad or tired, learn how to say sorry.”

Helping a child with anxiety

There are many things that you as a parent can do to help your anxious child. Talking to them about how they’re feeling and letting them know that you understand and are there for them, can help them feel supported.

Letting your child know that adults, as well as children, also have anxiety and feel anxious about things, can help to normalise the feelings they are having. Talking about how you make yourself feel better when you’re anxious, i.e., going for a walk, watching a funny movie, or talking to a friend, may help them start to figure out ways they can feel better too.

In the moment, if a child is visibly upset or distressed, Rita suggests getting them moving.

“Do star jumps, touch toes, run around. They need to use up all that extra fuel that’s making them feel sick,” says Rita.

Breathing exercises may also help lessen their symptoms.

“Breathe in, then breathe out for twice as long. Count and do this with your child,” says Rita. “Get them to tense then relax – so squeeze a fist, then relax the hand. Do this all over the body from the toes up.”

Additional support for an anxious child

If you’re concerned about your child’s mental wellbeing, we have useful tools and resources for the whole family.

HCF members with hospital or extras cover 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 includes online courses, video lessons, activities and animations to help them understand and better manage their feelings. There is also confidential access to an experienced child psychologist who can answer your questions within 48 hours. Plus, there are resources for children who are worried or unsettled by COVID-19.

We're also trying to make it as easy and fast as possible for you to access the mental wellbeing support you need. PSYCH2U mental wellbeing and navigation services are unique to HCF, giving eligible HCF members^ access to video consultations with psychologists, psychiatrists and other allied health professionals.

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 Kerry McCarthy
Updated October 2021

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