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Does your child struggle with anxiety? Here are 5 things you can do to help

16/04/2018

Place2Be’s Principal Educational Psychologist Julia Clements explains why we experience anxiety, when it becomes unhealthy and how parents can support their child through it.

Did you know that anxiety is designed to protect us? It’s a natural phenomenon that humans of all ages experience. When faced with a threat or problem, anxiety  can help warn us and motivate us to do something about it. So, for example, when we’re anxious about a test, we prepare. When we’re anxious about getting our children to school, we leave early.

Normal anxiety in children

It is perfectly normal for children and young people to experience anxiety at different stages in their lives. We might expect a baby to be anxious when separated from their parent or carer and a toddler to be anxious in new surroundings. Pre-schoolers may be afraid of certain animals and older children of the dark or imaginary creatures. In adolescence young people may become anxious about exams, family, relationships, death, terrorism and more.

When does it become unhealthy?

Anxiety becomes unhealthy or problematic when it starts to cause significant distress and interferes with our everyday lives. For example, feeling shy is perfectly normal but social anxiety might cause a child to be overwhelmingly afraid of everyday activities like going out to see friends or speaking on the phone.

Among other things, a child struggling with anxiety might be

  • worrying a lot or thinking negatively
  • finding it hard to concentrate
  • sleeping badly
  • changing eating patterns
  • becoming irritable
  • looking tense or fidgety
  • using the toilet often
  • crying frequently
  • being ‘clingy’
  • complaining of tummy aches or feeling unwell.


Children and young people might also resort to unhealthy coping strategies such as avoiding situations that cause them anxiety (e.g. school), using drugs or alcohol or self-harming.

Helping your child cope with anxiety

1. Think about your own wellbeing

Your own mental health is important, so as a first step, it can be useful to think about how you manage anxiety yourself. If you think you may need support, don’t hesitate to speak to someone, such as a friend, family member or professional, for example, your G.P. When you start by looking after yourself it not only helps your own wellbeing, but enables you to better support others.

2. Help your child understand what anxiety can look and feel like

Naming the emotion and identifying symptoms can help a child feel less overwhelmed. E.g. “I can see that you have started to speak quickly – perhaps you are starting to feel a bit anxious?" Encourage them to think about what they feel in their bodies and think in their minds when they feel anxious and share that with you. And remember, if at any point you aren’t sure what to do, it’s ok to seek help from a professional.

3. Practice anxiety reduction techniques together

There are many ways to reduce anxiety and different techniques work for different people. You could try doing physical exercise, fun activities, breathing exercises or meditation with your child. Apps like Stop, Breathe & Think can be helpful

4. Help your child face fears gradually

Rather than completely avoiding the cause of the anxiety, you can encourage your child to overcome it at their own pace and praise each brave thing they do in their journey. Try making a 'worry ladder' with gradually trickier tasks on each step towards the biggest worry at the top. Positive feedback, recognition of progress and support through set-backs can help your child climb the ladder.

5. Challenge negative thinking

It can be useful to discuss negative, critical thoughts and test out how useful they are. E.g. if your child often says "I can’t do this" you could ask whether they would consider saying this to a friend – the answer is probably not! So you could encourage the child to be kinder to themselves and repeat “I can do this!" in their mind or out loud. Stories like ‘The Huge Bag of Worries’ can help with this and let them know they are not alone.

Still worried?

If the symptoms get worse or you’re still worried about your child for any reason, you can seek support from school staff like the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO), talk to your GP, or call the Young Minds Parents Helpline on 0808 802 5544 (Mon-Fri, 9:30- 4 in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) for advice and information about local services.

Find out more about anxiety disorders in children on the NHS website

This blog was written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the view of the organisation.

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