What is childhood anxiety?

  • by Teigan Margetts

Tummy butterflies. Nervousness. The jitters. Panic. Whatever you choose to call it, we’ve all experienced it before, and it isn’t nice. In fact, it can feel crippling and prevent us from living our best lives. And this can be especially true for our little ones. 

Childhood anxiety is, unfortunately, very common, with many children experiencing it at sometime in their young lives. Some experience it worse than others, and for those who do, anxiety can be life-changing, and not in a good way. Children who suffer from an anxiety disorder are three times as likely to have behaviour problems, and are also more likely to suffer from depression. Also, concerningly, there is strong evidence to suggest that mental health problems in childhood predict mental illness in adulthood. Childhood anxiety is serious, on the rise, and now the leading mental health issue among young people. It’s something that all parents, grandparents and carers need to properly educate themselves about. 

But what is childhood anxiety? Is it normal or not? What causes it and what are the signs a child may have it? We spoke to Dr. Maxine Therese, children’s wellbeing expert and founder of Childosophy, about all things childhood anxiety and what we, as parents, carers or grandparents, can do to help our little ones through it. 

What is childhood anxiety? 

We all remember feeling nervous when we were children (and in fact, many of us still feel this way). We might have been nervous before our first day of school perhaps, or felt nervous excitement for our first trip on an aeroplane. But childhood anxiety is far more than simply feeling nervous about something in particular. Dr. Maxine explains: 

“Anxiety in children is in essence a response to fear and in most cases, the source of that fear is unknown to the child. 

Anxiety results when a child experiences ‘big feelings’ that they are unable to communicate verbally or understand.” 

Children experiencing anxiety may say things like “I don’t know why I feel the way I do.” Alternatively, they may display their feelings physically, for example, they might scream, squirm or cry. These responses are examples of children being stuck in an automatic response to fear, and not knowing how to transition through it in a way that feels safe. This desire to be safe, according to Dr. Maxine, is the root cause of many anxiety issues in children: 

“My research has revealed that anxious children have an unmet need to feel safe and secure in themselves, and safe and secure in the world.” 

Is childhood anxiety normal?

Living in the adult world can certainly be anxiety-inducing these days, with the threat of climate change ever-present, among other things. So as a young child with less experience of the world, isn’t some anxiety normal? 

Understanding whether or not anxiety is normal comes down to how we as a society, and also as parents or carers, think about and respond to what is happening to our child. 

When a child has anxiety, they experience a whole body response to their fear, even if the threat isn’t necessarily real. Neuroscientifically, what this means is that their fear triggers a response in their amygdala (the part of the brain that processes emotions). In turn, the amygdala activates the body’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, and the child is forced to ponder whether they need to fight the situation, or try to flee altogether. At the same time, stress hormones begin pumping through the body, challenging the nervous system’s ability to cope. 

While this all seems terrifying and not something we want our little ones to ever experience, Dr. Maxine says that it is how we deal with the resulting anxiety that can help determine whether it is normal or not: 

“Many adults see anxiety in children as a problem to solve, rather than an opportunity to understand what a child is experiencing. 

Worrying about a child’s anxiety is likely to set up more anxiety as we haven’t asked a child what they need. A parent who decides that their child is feeling certain things is not understanding what the child is feeling for themselves.”

Do children outgrow anxiety? 

Many parents who think that anxiety is ‘normal’ think their children will simply outgrow it. And while some do, many do not, cautions Dr. Maxine. In fact, anxiety can have far-reaching consequences: 

“Left unresolved, anxiety will become a pattern of behaviour and can transform or shift into patterns of avoidance and aversion. Such patterns can remain in adulthood.” 

So while it’s safe to say that some children may outgrow their anxiety, many may not, and so it is important to help them through it.

What causes childhood anxiety? 

Anxiety can have far-reaching consequences for children. But what causes it?  

Anxiety in children (and indeed, in adults) is the result of a disconnect between how we are feeling, and the reason for that feeling. As humans, we naturally try to make sense of things, and if we don’t understand what we’re feeling or why, there is a natural tension. To understand what is causing this tension in our little ones, Dr. Maxine believes that we need to stop and pause, and try to understand things from our children’s perspective: 

“To understand our children’s anxiety, we must look at both the seen and unseen dimensions of their life. 

Epigenetics now confirms that children are largely influenced by what they have inherited. The feelings, thoughts and experiences of the genetic line are active in their behaviours, so if their parents have experienced anxiety or trauma, children are more likely to carry the same nervous system response to stress.”

Although genetics is not the only cause of anxiety, it can certainly be a contributing factor. Anxiety can have many causes, so as parents or carers we should always try to look behind the anxiety and see what our little ones might be communicating about what they need. 

What are the signs and symptoms of childhood anxiety? 

As parents, we all know that our children’s behaviour can be anything but consistent! But how do we separate normal behaviour from what might be considered anxiety? 

Unfortunately, the signs and symptoms of anxiety can be as unique as children themselves, so it isn’t always easy to recognise, says Dr. Maxine: 

“Anxious children might be clingy, and others might be rigid and set in their ways. Some may not want to go out or move, some may have phobias, some may be insecure or defensive, and others might cry uncontrollably or exhibit aggressive behaviours.” 

Dealing with these behaviours as a parent or carer can be a real challenge. But what is most important. Dr. Maxine believes, is to look beyond the behaviours and understand what is causing them.

How can you help a child who is experiencing anxiety? 

None of us want our children to experience anxiety, especially considering the consequences can be so grave. But is there anything we can do? There are a number of steps you can take, says Dr. Maxine. And surprisingly, the first step doesn’t necessarily have to do with your child: 

“To help your little one through anxiety, it is always a good idea to use what they are experiencing as an opportunity to explore your own fears, especially if their anxiety makes you anxious. 

Work on being mindful of your own body’s response to understand your own feelings.” 

After you’ve analysed your own feelings, Dr. Maxine says that you should try to clear your emotional calendar, so to speak, so you are able to focus on your child: 

“It will be difficult to attend to your child’s needs if you are rushed or emotionally imbalanced due to another issue. Pay attention to your own responses when you are trying to understand your little one.” 

The final step in helping your child through anxiety, says Dr. Maxine, is letting your child guide you. Although this may feel counterintuitive to what most parents feel their role is, it really is essential to understanding their anxiety, and working through it: 

“When trying to understand anxiety, let your child’s self-knowledge be your guide. It isn’t always easy to read their cues about what they need, but it is easy to get caught up in the emotion of it, especially if you feel you did not have certain needs met yourself as a child. 

Their anxiety is them saying ‘soothe me.’ It’s important for you to do this until they can learn to do it for themselves.” 

When planning to soothe your little one, Dr. Maxine recommends putting a special plan in place for situations that might be anxiety-inducing. When the situation arises, ensure you validate your child’s feelings, and give them as much reassurance and comfort as they need.

How to use story time to help your child with anxiety

Helping our little ones understand their anxiety requires us to make space in our lives to process these feelings with them, and Dr. Maxine believes that story time can be a great opportunity to do just this: 

“Children need stories that speak to the deeper concepts of what their bodies do when they feel uncertain. They need to know their anxiety has a special meaning, and that it holds vital information about what they need.”  

Introducing these ideas through a story, says Dr. Maxine, can be a great way to start a discussion about what happens in our bodies and our nervous systems, and what we can do to help calm ourselves when we’re feeling uncertain. Simple techniques such as taking a deep breath can have important physiological effects and can be an important starting point to understanding, and processing, emotions. 

Should I worry if my child has anxiety? 

Feelings and emotions are a big part of what makes us all human, and what makes life so great. But they can also be frightening, especially when they manifest as anxiety in children. If you are concerned, help is always available. 

But if you are concerned about your child, Dr. Maxine says, try first to alter your mindset. While childhood anxiety can feel frustrating and stressful, try to use it as an opportunity to learn more about your child … and potentially to learn about yourself in the meantime: 

“Children’s bodies and mind are intimately connected to their behaviours which, in turn, can be connected to their genetics and their parents' own behaviours. 

Try to see their anxiety as a window into their world, and then try and understand things from their perspective.”

To help little ones worldwide with their anxiety, Ethicool has published the most gorgeous children’s picture story book on anxiety. Discover the incredibly calming world of Samson C. Turtle.

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