What is it?
Young people will feel worried or stressed from time to time, just as adults will. Feeling worried is a natural reaction for young people when they are faced with a stressful or new situation, such as starting a new school or sitting exams. In these circumstances the feelings are usually short lived as the young person adapts to the new situation or the stressful event passes. A little bit of stress for short periods of time can be useful, as it helps to focus the mind, motivate us into action and encourages problem solving.
Sometimes though, young people can feel too stressed or worry about things ‘too much’ and this can get in the way of enjoying life and achieving their goals. When this sort of fear or worry is ongoing it is called ‘anxiety’.
Young people can have many pressures on them that can cause anxiety, such as:
- school pressures
- exams or schoolwork
- moving house
- making friends
- identity and relationships
- peer pressure
- troubles at home
As many as 1 in 6 young people will have difficulties with anxiety as some point in their life. There are lots of words to describe the different types of anxiety such as worry, fear, stress or panic. Sometimes anxiety can continue for a long time or might be so strong that it starts to interfere with how they live their lives and do everyday things but there are lots of things that we can do that might help.
How to tell if a young person is anxious
Young people may differ in the ways that they react and respond to feelings of anxiety and worry. For example, some young people may become irritable and argumentative, whilst others may be more withdrawn and subdued. Anxiety not only affects the way a young person feels emotionally and physiologically, but it also affects the way they think and behave.
Sensations associated with anxiety
- Feeling sick
- Increased heart rate
- Feeling breathless
- Tight chest
- Pounding heart
Emotions associated with anxiety
- Angry outbursts/feeling irritable
- Feeling sad
Thoughts and cognitions associated with anxiety
- Difficulty concentrating
- Constant worry
- Imagining the worst will happen
- Afraid of making mistakes
- Having bad dreams or nightmares
Behaviours associated with anxiety
- Avoidance of situations they are worried about
- Crying/clinging to parents and/or caregivers
- Poor sleep/waking through the night
- Poor appetite
- Withdrawn from family and friends
- Complaining of feeling unwell
- Frequent seeking of reassurance
These thoughts, emotions, behaviours and sensations can develop into a vicious cycle which maintains anxiety however, this is an oversimplification. The separation of thoughts, emotions, behaviours and sensations is artificial and the links between them far more complex. In reality, some of each can be happening at the same time. For example, emotions incorporate both physiological sensations and a cognitive element.
Common types of anxiety disorders in children
It’s common for young children to develop fears and phobias at points in their development. Some common fears of younger children are:
- fear of the dark
These often resolve over time as the child gets older.
Some children may develop a phobia after a traumatic event, such as a fear of dogs following being bitten by a dog, whilst other children may develop fears as they observe other people being afraid of something.
Phobias are intense fears of specific things or situations, which are severe enough to restrict or prevent a young person from being able to do things they want to do.
Some young people worry excessively and persistently about many different things. Young people might worry about, health, school, family issues, money or other general concerns. Young people may experience a feeling of dread and worry that something bad will happen in the future or worry about things that have happened in the past. Young people experiencing this can find it difficult to control the excessive worrying and this can have a significant impact on their daily lives.
It is normal for young children to sometimes feel worried or upset when faced with routine separations from their parents or caregivers. Usually, such separation anxiety fades as they grow up, begin school, and gain confidence. However, for some young people this anxiety continues, and they can worry excessively about not being with their parent or care giver. The fear of separation can cause great distress to the child and may interfere with the child’s normal activities, such as going to school or playing with other children.NHS – Separation Anxiety
This is a fear or worry about social situations, going out in public and interacting with other people. Social anxiety tends to start in adolescence, and young people affected by it worry excessively about what other people might think about them; they fear being embarrassed or humiliated in a social situation. Young people experiencing this will often avoid attending social events and situations.Royal College of Psychiatrists – Shyness and Social Phobia
A panic attack is an overwhelming episode of anxiety that seems to occur for no reason. Panic attacks are very frightening to the young person experiencing them and to the people around them. The physical symptoms associated with a panic attack are so intense and a young person may think they are going to die or are losing their mind.HandsOn – Panic Attacks
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
This may develop after a young person has been witness to or involved in a frightening, distressing, traumatic experience. This might include violent attacks, abuse, involvement in or witnessing an accident.
After any traumatic event it’s common to feel distressed and anxious for a while. PTSD may be diagnosed if these feelings don’t resolve and the young person cannot move on from the traumatic incident, often experiencing distressing thoughts, nightmares and flashbacks about it.Royal College of Psychiatrists – Traumatic stress in children
Below are three videos created by the CAMHS Team (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) in Harrogate, North Yorkshire around supporting your anxious child.