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How to Spot Anxiety in Children | Mentor Education

As many as one in six young people experience anxiety during their childhood. What are the key symptoms of this common condition – and what can parents can do to help?

As the pressures facing children increase – school, friendships, hobbies, social media – more and more of them are experiencing anxiety and other mental wellbeing issues. Add to that the pressure of preparing for exams, such as the 7 plus, 11 plus, GCSEs or A Level, and parents can feel at a loss to help.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is defined as ‘feelings of panic or fear’; and it’s very natural to experience these feelings sometimes, particularly during periods of stress (such as exam season at school!). However, if the ‘stress trigger’ (like an impending test) is removed and the anxiety still remains, this could be a sign of a longer-term problem.

Below we’ve listed some of the signs to look out for. Bear in mind, though, that some level of anxiety is normal and healthy. It is also important to try not to project your own worries onto your child. Equally, if your child is suffering from anxiety, it’s not a weakness or a flaw. Anxiety is very common, and it’s something you can handle together over time.

Symptoms of anxiety

Reluctance to engage in certain situations

If your child seems keen to avoid a certain situation, refusing to go to school for instance, it could be a sign of anxiety. Finding it difficult to mix with other children could also point to anxiety.

Extreme clinginess or timidity

If your child is glued to your side or exhibits signs of extreme shyness, this could be a warning sign. However, some children are naturally shy, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are experiencing anxiety. You will need to treat them with care over time and assess how their behaviour changes. You must then decide whether they are behaving in a way that differs from how they’ve seemed in the past.

Difficulty sleeping

If your child finds it very difficult to get to sleep, stay asleep, or has repeated nightmares (several times a week), this could be a symptom of anxiety.  Remove mobile phones, tablets, and other barriers to sleep and try and establish a good bedtime routine in order to assess the situation.

Frequently complains of a headache or bellyache

The mental stress of anxiety can manifest itself physically, most commonly through a recurrent stomach ache or headache. Bear this in mind if your child repeatedly mentions any of these ailments. The cause may be mental rather than physical.

Difficulty communicating

If your child switches to monosyllables when you ask how they are – grunting or answering simply ‘good’ or ‘fine’, for instance – they may be trying to hide the fact that they’re unhappy. Often children worry that you’ll be worried for them if they aren’t happy and don’t want to burden you; or they want to avoid articulating how they feel because that makes it seem more ‘real’; or perhaps they simply feel that talking won’t help the situation.

Displaying fearful behaviour

Worrying about things, asking if everything is okay, and asking for reassurance can be common in children. However, it can also be a sign of various conditions (including OCD, which is becoming more widely recognised as a prevalent form of adolescent anxiety). Often, children suffering from anxiety will worry about getting sick, being hurt, or dying, or that this may happen to someone they love; that objects or the area around them are unclean or full of germs; that objects are not placed exactly as they’d like (they may become fixated on ensuring that items are laid down in a particular way – straight, even, etc.); or that certain things or circumstances are lucky or unlucky.

In extreme cases, these fears can become so great that the child has a panic attack and finds it difficult to breathe.

How to help with symptoms of anxiety

Whilst anxiety is, to a certain extent, normal – indeed, the development of coping mechanisms is vital to a child’s progression. Some children are naturally more anxious than others. Support and guidance from a parent can really help them manage this condition to ensure it does not become a barrier to an enjoyable adolescence.

smiling young girl

It can be as simple as talking with your child, establishing good routines to help them feel safe, and practising breathing exercises (it’s amazing how helpful breathing deeply can be for children who are experiencing moments of stress).  The simple act of giving your child a cuddle or rubbing their back can be very soothing, too. In the next blog, we will cover more specific methods for managing anxiety, so do check back soon!

Please note: this blog has been written with the aim of providing general guidance, and does not constitute personal or medical advice. If you are concerned that your child’s anxiety is not improving, we recommend that you contact your GP without delay.

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