Written by Genie Price
Childhood is full of new experiences and journeys, which at times, can often feel overwhelming and scary to your child. Think about the time you first learnt to ride a bike or start a new school, for example.
Do you recall a sense of the unfamiliar? Flutters in your tummy?
Fearful and anxious behaviour is common in children, with most learning to cope with a range of normal fears and worries. However, for some – a little extra help might be needed when:
- They feel anxious more than other children their age
- These feelings of anxiety hinder or stop them from participating in daily or routine activities, such as school
- The anxiety interferes with their ability to develop at a normal rate alongside their peers of the same age
In 2015, a year-long study undertaken by the National Health Commission and the Australian Government has highlighted that one in seven (13.9%) children aged 4-11 years will suffer from a mental health disorder, with 6.9% of those affected by anxiety disorder.
Alongside ADHD, anxiety disorders are one of the highest rated mental health concern in children and young people in Australia.
What types of anxiety disorders are there?
Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder:
This disorder can develop after being involved in, witnessing or learning about a frightening situation or event. It can be debilitating and can lead to ongoing issues such as:
- Vivid memories and nightmares
- Heightened senses – where children will display signs of irritability and jumpiness in certain situations.
Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder:
A panic attack is an episode of intense fear and discomfort associated with physical symptoms and fearful thoughts. Symptoms can include:
- shortness of breath
- accelerated heart rate
- sweating and dizziness
- fear of going crazy or dying
Furthermore, fear of panic attacks in public places may lead to agoraphobia (feelings of an environment being unsafe with no easy escape).
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder:
OCD is characterised by unwanted and intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and feeling compelled to repeatedly perform rituals and routines (compulsions) to try and ease anxiety.
Most children with OCD are diagnosed around age 10, although the disorder can appear in children as young as two or three. Boys are more likely to develop OCD before puberty, while girls tend to develop it during adolescence.
A common compulsion many children experience is with handwashing where children will continue to wash their hands repeatedly from fear of germs making them sick or ill.
Social Anxiety refers to extreme levels of shyness and fears in social situations. It is characterised by children avoiding a range of social interactions such as:
- talking to new people
- speaking up in class or among peers
- performing in public
These children are frequently self-conscious and will often have only a small number of friends.
Selective mutism is a childhood anxiety disorder that is diagnosed when a child consistently does not speak in some situations, but speaks comfortably in other situations.
These children are capable of speaking yet are unable to speak in certain social settings where the demand to speak, is high, such as:
- at school
- at dance class
- at sports practice
In other situations, the same children may speak well with others and may even be considered to be quite “chatty”.
Common among the toddler and early childhood years, children who suffer from separation anxiety are those who have excessive anxiety about being separated from parents and/or primary caregivers, such as a grandparent or a nanny, or the familiar – home.
For example, they may:
- cling or cry when a parent leaves the home, or
- refuse to go to school or play dates
- to sleep alone in their own bed
They may not be comfortable being alone in a different room from the parent or caregiver even in their own home.
How to help your child cope with anxiety?
Take baby steps:
Anxieties and worries happen. Although you don’t want to see your child unhappy, the best way to help them overcome it is to take baby steps.
If you know your child might become anxious at a new school, or the situation is unfamiliar to them, try to take them to that place beforehand. For example: If you are moving schools, take your child to the school for a few sessions beforehand; let them see and experience it. With your positive language and support, they can manage their feelings.
Doing this will not only help them to tolerate their anxiety and function as well as they can, but eventually, the anxiety will decrease or fall away over time.
Don’t avoid it altogether:
As hard as it is, helping your child to avoid what they are afraid of will only make them feel better for a short time.
At the time, you may think you are helping but avoiding the situation reinforces the anxiety over the long run.
If your child is in an uncomfortable situation, try not to be tempted to remove the things they are afraid of or whisk them away. They will quickly learn this is the best coping mechanism, and that cycle has the potential to repeat itself.
You hear it all the time “Take a deep breath.”
Well, it’s true. When you are calm and relaxed, your body has more chance to “think” about the situation and you will be able to respond better.
However, for children, they need to be taught this.
Helping your child to learn the art of deep breathing by:
- Blowing bubbles
- Blowing on feathers and dandelions
- Blowing on windmills and pinwheels
Things to say:
- Breathe in like you are smelling a flower, breathe out like you are blowing out birthday candles
- Arms up and breathe in, arms down and breathe out
- Pretend your belly is a balloon. Breathe in and make the balloon bigger, then breathe out and make the balloon shrink.
Create a coping box:
Every child has their favourite things. Whether that be books or nanas old hanky, your child will benefit from having a box full of their favourite items.
Use the coping box as a distraction leading up to an event that you know may cause anxiety, or for times where the anxiety hits your child out of the blue. They will quickly feel comforted knowing they have some special items on hand to help them feel grounded again.
Other quick Tips and Tricks:
Sometimes you’ll need a quick way to help your child calm down and you don’t have much with you. Maybe it’s when you’re out at Target or stuck in traffic. These tips will come in handy during those times:
- Imagine your favourite place – use positive language to describe your child’s favourite places
- Think of your child’s favourite things and encourage them to talk about these and how they make them feel
- Name animals alphabetically (alligator, bear, cow, dog, etc…)
- Squeeze something (play dough, clay, silly putty, your fists, a stress ball)
- Get a cold drink of water for your child – the sensation of cold will help distract your child
- Remember your child’s favourite song and sing it with them – or on your own if you have to!
- Use positive and supportive language
Anxiety is real and for children, it can be particularly scary. With some positive support and guidance, your child will feel whole again in no time at all.
Please note: If you feel as though your child may be suffering from any form of ongoing anxiety, please speak to your local health nurse or doctor for further information. They will be able to give you the best and most sound advice based on your child’s needs.
In an emergency situation, immediately proceed to the emergency room at your local hospital or call 000.
For further information relating to mental health disorders, please visit: