How to spot the signs of anxiety in children

June 7, 2018 Published by

More and more children are seeking help for anxiety, according to the NSPCC.

In 2015-2016, 11,706 calls mentioning anxiety were made to their Childline service, a rise of 35 per cent from the year before.

Today anxiety is a frequently used word, but what does it actually mean – and when does it become a cause for concern?

What is the difference between being anxious, and having anxiety?



Normal life events or milestones such as starting school and moving house can bring about anxiety, which is defined as a feeling of worry or unease. These types of events may cause them to feel anxious, as when children become used to a routine, a sudden change can be difficult to come to terms with. Exams at school can also bring about increased signs of stress and anxiety, with some primary school children suffering sleeplessness and panic attacks.

There are also different types of anxiety more common to different age groups, for example, teenagers are more likely to suffer from social anxiety, which stems from the fear of being negatively judged by their peers. This of course has the potential to affect their social development, as they may avoid social gatherings or make excuses to get out of them as a result.

Of course, not all feelings of anxiousness are to be worried about. Children might feel anxious about different things at different ages and a lot of these worries are a perfectly normal part of growing up. However, anxiety becomes a problem when it starts to get in the way of your child’s day to day life.

Signs to look out for



According to the NHS, these are some of the key signs to be aware of.

Young children

  • Become irritable, tearful or clingy
  • Have difficulty sleeping
  • Wake in the night
  • Start wetting the bed
  • Have bad dreams


Older children

  • May lack the confidence to try new things or seem unable to face simple, everyday challenges
  • Find it hard to concentrate
  • Have problems with sleeping or eating
  • Are prone to angry outbursts
  • Have negative thoughts going round and round their head, or keep thinking that bad things are going to happen
  • Start avoiding everyday activities, such as seeing friends, going out in public or attending school

These are common signs, however every child is different – so being aware of any behaviour changes can help you pick up on mental health issues that may be emerging.

How can you help?

The natural urge may be to do what will make your child immediately feel better (i.e. by helping them avoid the thing they are afraid of doing). However, while this will help them in the short term, it will only serve to reinforce their anxiety in the long term. For example, if a younger child cries and is removed from a situation she perceives as uncomfortable immediately, then she’s learned this as a coping mechanism and this negative cycle has the potential to repeat itself . The goal here isn’t to eliminate anxiety, but to help your child manage it and function through it as well as they can. The anxiety itself may improve over time.

The good news is that recent research has highlighted the potential of school-based programmes to help children manage stress and anxiety. Schools that have started including mental health services into their day to day running and are already seeing positive results , and school-based yoga and mindfulness has also been shown to improve students’ emotional wellbeing. Find out if your school has any of these programmes running already – and if not, try suggesting it to your child’s teacher.

There are also some activities you can do at home to help your child learn to manage and talk about their emotions:

  • Create a worry box – This lets your child worry openly for a short time and encourages them to release worries in writing. You can provide a daily slot of time when they can write down their worries, post them in the box and say ‘goodbye’ to them for the day. You can then sort through the box together at the end of the day or week, discuss the things they have written and come up with solutions where necessary.


  • Make an emergency checklist – Renee Jain, creator of an anxiety relief programme for children, compares anxiety to a pilot facing an emergency when flying. She explains that even trained pilots will have an emergency checklist, because when faced with danger, it can be hard to think clearly. So she recommends that children make a checklist with a step-by-step method to help them calm down. For example, pausing and breathing, evaluating the situation, and so on.


  • Put together a mental health first aid kit – In a box, put some objects that can help your child calm down. This could be a book to write their thoughts in or draw, or sensory/fidget toys like mouldable sand, a Twiddle, or thinking putty


  • Be a calm and open role model – Children look to their parents as their most valuable role models, so watching how you deal with anxiety is important. If they see you handling things in a calm manner and dealing with experiences in a positive way, they will realise that a variety of scenarios can be worked through safely, and are not to be feared.


We hope you find this article useful. If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, speak to your GP or visit YoungMinds for more advice and a parents helpline for confidential, expert support.

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This post was written by Sarah Welland

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