You may not be surprised to know that anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health concerns that affect children and teenagers.
Of course, all children (like all adults) experience feelings of anxiety from time to time. Whether upcoming exams, a university interview or an important performance are the cause, it is a normal human response to being out of our comfort zone. In fact, a little anxiety or stress is healthy for us – it allows us to perform to our potential and prompts us to find solutions to problems we may be encountering in our daily lives.
Anxiety becomes a problem when it begins to impact a child’s everyday life and prevents them from either doing the things they want to do or causes them to stop doing the things they used to enjoy altogether.
It is at this point that parents may get in touch for help and support and is, in fact, one of the most common areas we work with here at The Youth Fairy. Importantly, anxiety can present in a wide variety of ways, including:
- School anxiety and school refusal
- Separation anxiety
- Anxiety around food, including eating disorders or disordered eating
- Generalised anxiety (where there appears to be no specific cause or trigger)
- Low mood and excessive negativity (low mood or depression often goes hand in hand with anxiety)
- Performance-related anxiety
- And many more
Here are some of the signs to look out for, which may indicate that your child may need some support to get back to feeling happy, confident and generally more positive again:
- Difficulties staying asleep or falling asleep
- Becoming withdrawn from family and friends
- Avoiding activities they usually enjoy
- Obsessively focusing on the same worries
- Complaining of tummy aches, headaches, or feeling sick
- Nail biting and other nervous habits
- Feeling irritable, restless or agitated
- Struggling to focus and concentrate
- Excessively needing reassurance
- Increase or decrease in appetite
- Worrying about ‘what if..?’
- Excessive fatigue
It is important to note that noticing any of these symptoms does not necessarily indicate anxiety and just because a child is suffering from feelings of anxiety does not mean they necessarily have an anxiety disorder.
To understand anxiety in more detail, let’s take a look at how the brain processes perceived stress:
- The Amygdala, the primitive part of the brain associated with our fear response, is activated. Our Amygdala, the pair of almond-shaped bundles of nerves buried deep in our brain, is responsible for what many of us understand as the ‘fight or flight’ response. It is an important part of our survival instinct that alerts us to danger. When faced with a stressful situation, our amygdala will spark a chain of events in the brain that will help to ensure our survival. It is thought that individuals who suffer with anxiety disorders or panic attacks may have heightened activity in this region of the brain.
- The Hypothalamus floods our bodies with chemicals in response to stress. The hypothalamus is like a command centre in the brain which regulates automatic bodily functions, such as our heart rate, our breathing, and our blood pressure. During a period of anxiety, in response to perceived stress, this part of the brain will fire off neurons that send messages to our adrenal glands to release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. The usual, self-regulated bodily functions stop working in the usual way and our bodies’ energy becomes focused on escaping the perceived danger. It is these effects of adrenaline in our bodies that cause the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety.
- The Hippocampus stores our subconscious behaviours. Together with the Amygdala and the Hypothalamus, the Hippocampus forms part of the brain that is responsible for our subconscious thoughts and behaviours. The actions we perform day-to-day without thinking, such as walking, riding a bike, or driving to work, are stored in this part of the brain, together with more unhelpful behaviours. For example, our Hippocampus stores our fear-based responses and it is this part of the brain that can keep the cycle of anxiety going. If we experience feelings of anxiety or a panic attack in a particular situation, but still survived, our primitive brain will think it has been helpful for us and so will encourage the same response in the brain again. In this way, we can see that the more an individual might fight or fear a situation that makes them anxious, the more likely they are to experience feelings of anxiety again because it fires up the fear response in the brain.
How can I support my child if they are suffering from anxiety?
One of the ways that we can help get anxiety under control is to lessen the activity in the fear-based primitive part of the brain. Anxiety and panic attacks are some of the main areas that the Youth Fairies help young people with. We do this by supporting young people to gain greater control of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with rational decision-making, positive thinking, and problem-solving. When this part of the brain is exercised, we are better able to develop healthy ways of coping with stress and to better prevent feelings of anxiety from happening in the first place, or to enable a child to have greater control of their anxiety so that they can finally start enjoying life more again.
Here are some of the ways you can support your child at home:
- Provide controlled choices. Often, when a child feels particularly anxious, they can have an excessive need for control. Children might want to know what is going to happen and when and they can become real experts at controlling or avoiding situations in an attempt to lessen their feelings of anxiety. Controlled choices give children some element of control, whilst allowing parents to set the limits. For example, if a child is reluctant to attend a club, they usually enjoy you might ask something along the lines of: “would you like me to stay for the first 10 minutes or arrive 10 minutes early to watch the end?” The key here is to make the choices both achievable and at least one of them desirable.
- Stick to a routine. Anxiety often worsens when we don’t know what to expect (thanks to our primitive brain being hyper-vigilant!) so try to stick to a home routine as much as you can. If you know your child becomes particularly anxious about changes to routine, try to warn them ahead of time where possible. Of course, life isn’t always predictable and there will always be last minute changes that inevitably crop up so normalise this with your child.
- Try not to allow your child to avoid the things that make them feel anxious. Whilst it is a natural instinct as parents to protect our children from the things that worry them, it is so important that we encourage our children to step out of their comfort zone. Avoiding the things that make them anxious simply fuels the anxiety. It is important for children to remember that their thoughts are creating the anxious cycle – we can choose to pay attention to those thoughts or to challenge them. It can be extremely helpful to talk about what a tiny step towards a solution would look like for them. Together, plot what these steps might look like alongside a visual representation like a staircase or a ladder.
- Create a self-soothe box. Help your child to fill a box with items that soothe them and help them to relax and feel calmer day-to-day before episodes of anxiety occur. For younger children this might include a soft toy or blanket or scented cloth, or for older children it might include a bubble bath, their favourite quote, or a reminder of their favourite music to listen to. The key is ensuring the items are chosen by them and actively encourage your child to feel calm in a way that works for them.
- Try 7/11 Breathing. This breathing technique stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the process our body goes through once a perceived threat to our survival or stressful event has passed. It induces feelings of relaxation as our brains release adrenaline when we breathe in and relax when we breathe out. By making the out-breath longer, we signal to our brain that we are calming down:
- Breathe in through your nose for a count of 7, making sure you are doing deep ‘belly breathing.’ Our belly should expand just like a balloon when we breathe in. You can encourage your child to put their hand on their belly to feel it rise and expand on the in-breathe.
- Breathe out through your mouth for the out-breath for a count of 11. This breath should be a long, slow, stretchy breath. If your child places their hands on their belly, they should feel it deflate back to normal.
- Repeat until you begin to feel calm and the panic symptoms ease. Like all things, this may seem unnatural at first but with more practice, it will become easier. The more your child practises, the easier it will be to draw upon this technique during an episode of anxiety or panic.
Where can I go for further information and support?
You can contact your nearest therapist at The Youth Fairy if you would like further support for your child to help them find ways of coping better with anxiety and to help prevent it in the future:
There are also charitable organisations that offer further information and guidance. You can find them at:
If you are particularly concerned about your child’s levels of anxiety, we would always recommend you also speak to your child’s GP.