Anxiety can be different in children. Here’s what to look for and some treatments to consider
Throughout the pandemic, many families have struggled with fears about COVID, jobs and lockdowns – while experiencing disruptions in things like school, childcare, social support services and beloved activities. It was stressful for some, traumatic for others.
It is therefore not surprising to learn that many children have been affected by anxiety during the pandemic, especially during the confinement.
Our research shows that some families were particularly vulnerable. Those who experienced financial hardship, poor housing, loneliness, pre-existing mental health issues, and marital conflict reported deterioration in the mental health of both children and parents over time.
Families and children who have struggled during the pandemic may need extra support to settle back into “COVID-normal” lives.
So what are the signs of anxiety to look for in a child, and how can you best support an anxious child?
Read more: Back to school: It’s time to rethink mental health strategies for children and families
How to recognize a child’s anxiety
Signs vary from child to child and by age, but can include:
avoiding situations or activities that were previously feasible (for example, refusing to go to a dance or a once-enjoyed sports activity)
changes in emotion regulation (for example, increased anger or irritability)
regressions such as wetting, nail biting, and/or clingy behavior
physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches and/or fatigue
disturbances in daily life, such as a lack of concentration, sleep and/or appetite.
Clinically, we would consider:
the frequency of each behavior (how often you notice it)
severity (how disruptive or impactful was it), and
how long you noticed the symptoms.
Many young people have an anxious day in response to a change or transition, such as starting a new school. But fewer people would experience problems consistently for more than two weeks.
Treatment of anxiety in children
Start a conversation: Parents may be afraid that talking about their child’s feelings will make the situation worse, but this is rarely the case. Talking about feelings usually helps children let go of them. Talking also helps children regulate their emotions.
If your child is struggling and you’re concerned they’re showing signs of anxiety, it’s worth talking to a professional for early support.
In Australia, there are three routes.
First, you can contact your general practitioner to organize a referral for your child to a private psychologist. Your GP can draw up a mental health care plan for your child, which includes up to ten discounted sessions per year. In other words, part of the psychologist’s fees would be covered by health insurance.
Second, you can talk to your child’s early childhood teacher or teacher to access assessment and support.
Third, when symptoms are severe, you can contact your local child and adolescent mental health service for advice and possibly treatment. (Click on your state or territory name to find out what’s available in your area: Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia, Northern Territory, Queensland, Tasmania, Australian Capital Territory) .
The pandemic has put a strain on health services and there are often long waiting lists to see psychologists and other specialists.
While you wait, we recommend consulting the evidence-based online support and making sure the basics of symptom relief are in place.
Online support for children is available at:
BRAVE (a program for children ages 8-17 with anxiety)
Moodgym for young people (an interactive self-help book to prevent and manage symptoms of depression and anxiety)
BITE BACK (a program to improve well-being and prevent depression and anxiety in adolescents aged 13-16).
Online support for parents is available at:
Relief from basic symptoms of anxiety
There are many things you can try to help ease your child’s anxiety.
1. Make sure they get enough sleep and physical activity daily
The guidelines show that children aged 5 to 17 need nine to 11 hours of sleep and at least one hour of exercise daily.
2. Make sure they eat well
Research shows links between certain foods and mental health, so make sure your child is getting a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, and protein every day.
3. Help your child connect with friends
Social connections are important for healthy child development, improved well-being, and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. Helping your child stay connected and engaged with their peers is essential.
4. A slow and gradual return to the situations your child dreads
The closures may have made it difficult for some children to return to busy, busy and potentially overwhelming environments such as school or a stimulating extracurricular activity. If a child is struggling, it is helpful to plan a gradual return at a slow, controlled pace.
Parents and guardians are important people in children’s lives, even when children become teenagers. Being available to listen without judgment (and without trying to solve problems) can help your child manage their feelings and be confident in their own ability to cope.
Read more: Is there such a thing as “too old” to sleep with your child? The research might surprise you