It’s not unusual for children to become anxious or worried in certain situations, like when they're starting nursery or going through a developmental leap. But how do you know if your child is suffering from anxiety? From excessive crying to wetting the bed, here are the signs to look out for … and what you can do to help.
All children feel anxious now and again, perhaps when they're in new situations or meeting new people. Whether it's tugging on your jeans and crying to come 'mup' at a toddler group or clinging to you when you try to leave them at nursery for the first time, we've all been there and, although it's hard to manage, it's perfectly normal.
But when do these reactions cross the threshold from being just part of growing up to anxiety? And, more importantly, how can you help your little one through it?
We spoke toclinical psychologist Linda Blairto find out the most common signs of anxiety in children and to ask her advice on how you can help.
1.Irritability and temper tantrums
Linda says the most common and noticeable sign of anxiety in a child is being irritable and having frequent temper tantrums.
Now let's get this straight, we all know tantrums are part of toddlerhood, a phase to be lived through using any method you can.
But if older children revert to having tantrums and there's no simple explanation – like being hungry or tired, or needing to go to the toilet – this could be a red flag that they're struggling with anxiety, says Linda.
2.Excessive crying and neediness
If a child is anxious they often don't understand why they feel the way they do, so they may cry more often than usual.
Younger children, up to about two, may be suffering from separation anxiety – a common fear of being apart from their parents that most little ones experience at some point. Rest assured, this almost always passes by itself.
But, if your child is slightly older, excessive crying and needing you more than usual may be a sign that they could have anxiety.
Just like tantrums, restlessness is one of those things all kids get from time to time especially when they're hungry or – for lots of children – when they need a poo. Or they've had too many sweets. Or a fizzy drink. The list is endless ...
'But if your usually calm child starts to become restless and jumpy, seemingly for no reason, it could be a sign they're feeling overly anxious about something,' explains Linda.
4.Difficulty sleeping or having frequent nightmares
Some sleepless nights are just part of the deal, we all know that. And every child, even once they've started regularly sleeping through, will have a bad night now and again.
Once you've eliminated any obvious cause for this – like watching a scary movie or reading a frightening book – you should consider anxiety as a possible reason.
According to theMental Health Foundationif your child is 'unable to sleep alone, or be in a different room from you, this might indicate that they are overly anxious.' And Linda says it's one of the top reasons adults go to the GP, too.
5.Loss of appetite and feeling unwell
Similarly to dealing with nightmares, you first need to make sure there's no reasonable cause for your child feeling unwell. Take their temperature and keep an eye on them for a couple of days. If you're still unsure, check with your GP just to make sure they're not actually coming down with a cold or virus.
If you've eliminated the obvious reasons for a child to say 'mummy I have a tummy ache', then you should pay close attention to their behaviour to see if they show any other signs of anxiety.
'When children complain about a tummy ache, headache or simply say they're not hungry, and there's no obvious cause, anxiety should be considered,' says Linda.
Alongside that butterflies-in-the-tummy feeling, children who are anxious often feel their heart racing, which can lead to excessive sweating.
One study, which looked at the symptoms of anxiety in 128 children, found that 74% reported feeling restless and 45% experienced sweating.
Linda says this is a common sign and could mean your child is holding in their emotions when all they really want is to let you know they're feeling upset.
7.Avoiding social situations
There are two reasons why your child might be avoiding social situations, says Linda. Some children are naturally shy or introverted, and for them things like parties and playdates can be daunting.
But, if you child has not shown signs of shyness before, and they suddenly become distressed about playdates, or cling onto you tearfully in social situations, it could be a warning sign.
So, how can you help?
The first thing to understand is that anxiety is a cover for fear, Linda says. You have to ask yourself: what happened or is happening to cause that fear?
'If your child exhibits more than a couple of the signs of anxiety, I would say they're trying to cope with more than they can handle,' says Linda. 'So you need to look at all aspects of their lives. Look at nursery: is their class too large, would they do better in a smaller, more intimate setting? Are the hours too long? Have they fallen out with a classmate? And what about at home? Has something changed that could be making them fearful and anxious, like a house move or the birth of a new sibling? Even something that seems minor, like a new bed, could have an effect.
'You also have to question yourself: could you inadvertently be doing something to upset your child? Have either of you been working away a lot lately, or has something happened in the family, like a grandparent becoming ill, that's causing you to feel stressed and worried?'
Once you get to the root of the problem, you can do something to help.
Linda's anxiety-busting tips:
- Start by look for the signs of discomfort. Your child's anxiety could come from a simple place: hunger, thirst, simply needing the physical reassurance of a cuddle. Boredom is a possible cause too, 'when children don't know what to do with themselves it can trigger anxiety.'
- Anxiety can also stem from the being afraid of a particular situation. Look for specific reasons your child might be feeling anxious, like being picked on at nursery or school. It's always best to approach the problem head on.
- When your child is feeling needy, never push them away. The best way to help is to give them all the attention they want, plenty of hugs and as much time as you can spare. But, be sure to do so in a positive and upbeat way, rather than becoming anxious yourself. You really are their best comfort blanket and role model.
- 琳达说它还可以有助于分散你的孩子d. 'Play a game, sing a song or watch a light-hearted movie together. This way, they'll think about something else,' she says. 'It won't fix the problem but distraction can help them feel better, and ensure they relax, which can in turn help you uncover the root cause.'
- If your child is having trouble sleeping or having nightmares, work on establishing a soothing bedtime routine. For example, stay with your little one until they sleep to make them feel secure. Night after night, edge your chair further away from your child, towards the door, until you don't need to be there anymore. Linda says: 'It may take a little time, but it'll help young children get used to sleeping without you, in a comfortable way.' You may also wish to install a night light so it's not totally dark in their room.
What can I do if the behaviour continues?
In some cases, high levels of anxiety in a child can make it impossible for them to do usual activities, like getting ready for school, going on car journeys or sleeping.
If the anxiety lasts more than a couple of weeks and gets to this stage of distress, Linda advises seeing your GP and perhaps considering outside help from a professional.
'Your GP should always be your first port of call. Discuss your problems with them and they can help you work towards a solution.
'If you opt to seek out a therapist, the best kind is one that works with the parents to help the child. You have to see yourself as a therapist, too,' she says. 'But a professional has the emotional distance to see the situation from an objective point of view.'
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