Family Therapy UK

Worries and Anxiety Problems in Children


All children suffer from worries and anxiety at times.  It is quite normal for a child to be anxious about going to the dentist, starting school or do deal with separation from their parents for the first few times.  Some children have a greater sensitivity to change than others and always seem to worry more than their friends or siblings.

For parents, the changes and challenges their children face can also make them anxious.  Some children pick up on these feelings and that can make them more anxious still.  For instance, when a child starts school for the first time if they sense their parents are worried, then they may become anxious too. Their parents anxiety confirms that what the child is facing will be unpleasant and difficult.  For this reason, try to be calm and reassuring when dealing with anxieties in your child.  Parents can become anxious when their children face situations they themselves found difficult.  For instance, if a parent was bullied at school, they will be very sensitive to such issues.  It can be useful to think about this if you are constantly feeling anxious about your children.  If you are too protective of your child they can fail to develop self-confidence and their own coping skills.

If worries persist and your child becomes very anxious in a way that starts to restrict their normal development, then you need to do something about it.

An anxious child may become:

• Clingy and fearful to leave you

• May become panicky and breathless

• Have headaches, tummy aches and other stress reactions

• May become withdrawn and uncommunicative

• Lose interest in activities they have always enjoyed

• Stop wanting to play out or visit friends

• Keep checking that you are going to be in or what time you will be back home

• Be bad tempered and tense

• Develop rituals and difficulty coping with change

Some common causes of anxiety in children

School difficulties

Check with school to see how your child is coping.  Ask about their peer relationships, how they are getting on with their teachers and with their work.  Ask your child whether they are being bullied or picked on, whether they feel isolated or are worried about their school work.  Ask yourself if you are pushing them too hard or expect too much academically. If there are problems, discuss this with the school.

Peer groups

Find out how your child is getting on with their peers in school and at home.  Falling out with a friend can be very traumatic and sometimes cuts children off from a larger group.  Boyfriend and girlfriend difficulties can be very traumatic and distressing for some children.  Talk to your child about their peers and any difficulties they may be experiencing in their social relationships.  Try to look at things from their point of view.

Family problems

Divorce, separation, arguments and violence at home can all make children very anxious.  The areas most associated with anxiety in children after divorce and separation are criticism of one parent by another and unclear and inconsistent contact arrangements.

The arrival of new children into the family or the exit of an older child, the death of a family member or relative can also lead to raised anxiety levels in children.  Try to talk to your children about these things, even if they are very young. Remember to explain things at an age appropriate level. Repeat these explanations and reassurances over time.

Traumatic and unexpected events

Children can become anxious after traumatic events such as a car crash, witnessing violence, burglary, unexpected and sudden deaths or family members being attacked etc.

Parental Illness / disability / mental Illness / addiction

When a parent is ill children can become very worried and anxious - particularly if it is a major or sudden illness.  Operations and hospitalisation of parents can be frightening for children.  Disabilities and mental illness in parents can lead to raised anxiety levels in children, particularly if children have to look after their parents.  Drug addiction and alcoholism in parents cause children to become fearful and anxious too.

What can you do?

Stay calm and consider what might be causing your child's anxiety.  Talk to your child without criticising them. Try to reassure them that you will help them through their difficulties.  Be open to talking with other important people in their lives such as school teachers and relatives who can offer useful help to your child and support to you.

If you are divorced or separated, let the other parent know about the difficulties your child is experiencing and work together to support your child.

If you are facing changes as a family, discuss these with the children before they happen.  Talk about any worries and anxieties they may have.  For instance, moving house can have a big effect on children. They will be concerned about starting a new school, losing old friends and having to make new ones.  Older teenagers may have to leave boyfriends or girlfriends behind.  Try not to minimise the extent of your child's feelings. They may have powerful feelings about these events and they will need help and understanding to deal with them.  Try to remember just how powerful your feelings were when you were a child.

If someone close is dying, discuss this and how you will deal with this in a way that leaves your children feeling as safe and secure as possible.  Protect them, as far as is possible, from adult areas of concern. If you are not coping as a parent you will need to seek appropriate help for yourself. Children are not generally emotionally equipped to look after adults.

Check that your children are not picking up on your anxieties. They may feel responsible for your mental or physical health.  For instance, after an illness in a parent, a child may avoid going to school because they want to look after their parent.  They may not admit this. Children often hide their fears and anxieties in order to protect an anxious parent from further worry. Children who are anxious about separating from their parents may actually be picking up on their parents anxiety about separating from their children.

Speak to your children in a way that accesses their feelings. For instance, asking if they are scared, angry, upset etc. is often more useful than asking them how they are feeling. This is particularly so fot young children.

If none of this works

If your reassurance and support do not work and your child continues to be anxious and distressed, seek help from your doctor.  They can refer you to a child and adolescent mental health service for older children, or to your health visitor if your children are younger.  If you need help for yourself, they will arrange this too.

Schools have educational psychologists, education welfare officers, school nurses and school doctors who can offer you practical help and advice about any anxieties your child may be experiencing at school and home.  Most schools have a SENCO teacher who will have received specialist training in supporting the emotional and educational special needs of children. In the UK, children over the age of 13, have access to the Connexions Service who will have counsellors available to talk to your child.


Dennis Neill

Family Therapist

Family Therapy UK

1st May 2008

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