It’s normal for children to experience stress and fear from time to time, but when these feelings become persistent, intense, and impact a child’s day-to-day life, they may be experiencing an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are very common among children and teens, with a prevalence of between 4-20%. Some of the anxiety disorders commonly experienced by kids include specific phobias, generalized anxiety disorders, and separation anxiety. Although somewhat less common, many children live with PTSD, panic disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder, especially as they move into their tween and teen years.
If you are parenting a child with anxiety, you are likely looking for ways to help and support them. Here, we’ll go over typical anxiety symptoms in kids and teens, how parents can support their children, and when to reach out for outside help.
What Does Anxiety Look Like in Children?
The first step in learning how to help someone with anxiety is recognizing that they have it. Although only a licensed mental health professional or healthcare professional can formally diagnose an anxiety disorder in a child, it can be helpful for you to recognize some of the signs and symptoms.
Anxiety in children may look a little different than anxiety in adults. Additionally, anxiety in teens may look a little different than anxiety in younger kids. Here’s what to know.
Anxiety Symptoms in Children
Symptoms of anxiety vary from one child to another, but may look like:
- Feeling intensely afraid to be away from parents
- Having strong fears about something specific, such as a fear of animals, a fear of the dark, or fears about certain people or situations
- General worry about bad things happening in the future
- Trouble sleeping; staying up ruminating
- Physical signs of anxiety such as racing heartbeat, tight breathing, nausea, and dizziness
- Physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches that don’t have a known medical cause
Anxiety Symptoms in Teens
Anxiety symptoms in tweens and teens may look a little different than symptoms in younger children, and each teenager will experience anxiety slightly differently. Some signs include:
- Having intense levels of fear and worry
- Feeling restless, stressed, and anxious even when nothing obvious is triggering these feelings
- Withdrawing socially or feeling very uncomfortable in social situations
- Physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, muscles aches, and exhaustion
- Signs of anxiety like rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, strained breathing, and startling
- School anxiety or avoidance
- Intense self-consciousness
- Not wanting to leave the house and wanting to avoid social contact
- Perfectionistic tendencies at school, fear of failure, and having trouble completing assignments because of excessive worry and stress
What Can You Do to Help With Anxiety?
When you are the parent of a child with anxiety, it’s common to feel helpless and unsure of how to help your child. Your child’s behavior and emotional turmoil may be so intense that you develop feelings of anxiety as well.
Try to take a deep breath. The simple fact that you are searching for ways to help your child with anxiety is a step in the right direction and means that you care deeply about your child’s well being. The good news is that there are many effective ways to help children through the challenges of anxiety.
Parents may have many questions about helping their children with anxiety, including what to do, what to say, how to help a child who is experiencing a panic attack, and when to reach out to a healthcare professional for help.
Ways to Assist with Anxiety in Children
There are several things you can do in your day-to-day life with your child to support them. The Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) lists several actions parents can take when they have anxious children or teenagers, such as:
- Setting aside time each day to connect with your child and giving them your undivided attention
- Making sure to praise your child when they have accomplished something or acted in a helpful manner
- Giving your child a safe, non-judgmental space to share their feelings and concerns
- Emphasizing healthy habits that promote mental wellness, such as getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising
- Teaching your child deep breathing techniques and practicing them with your child
- Gradually having your child face their fears (allowing them to avoid the things they fear only makes anxiety worse)
How to Help Someone With Anxiety Attacks
Panic and anxiety attacks are times when people experience intense episodes of anxiety, and it can be very distressing when your child is experiencing panic or anxiety attacks.
Signs of anxiety/panic attacks in children and teens may look like:
- The fear that something horrible or dangerous is happening even when it isn’t
- A rapid heartbeat, feeling dizzy, feeling like you can’t breathe, or shaking,
- Feeling detached from reality
- Feeling like you are dying or losing your mind
Watching your child experience an anxiety attack can be extremely stressful, but it’s important that you remain calm if possible. Reassuring your child that everything is actually okay can help them calm down. Other strategies for helping a child through a panic or anxiety attack include:
- Assuring your child that what they are feeling is an intense emotion and they aren’t in danger
- Helping your child calm down by doing some deep breathing; you can do this with them
- Deep breathing may look like having your child place a hand on their chest or stomach to feel each breath coming in and out. You might ask your child to breathe by taking five slow breaths or to breathe in for five seconds and then breathe out for five seconds
- Bringing your child to a safe, quiet place, away from crowds or stimulation; if that’s not possible, tell them a story or do a visualization exercise where you ask them to imagine a safe, quiet place
- Grounding your child in their five senses; have them find something in the room they can see, touch, smell, hear, and taste
When to Get Outside Help for Anxiety in Children
If your child’s anxiety is persistent, interrupting sleep, leading to avoidance, or making it difficult to function at home or at school, it’s time to consider outside help for your child. You can start with your child’s pediatrician, who can help rule out any medical issues that may be causing your child’s symptoms and who may be able to refer you to a child psychologist or therapist.
Child therapists practice various types of therapy, but the type most commonly used to treat anxiety in children is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps children become more mindful of what they are thinking and how this affects their feelings and behaviors. They learn to face their fears in a safe space and learn skills for coping with their feelings. Parents are also usually involved in the process, learning how best to respond to their child when they’re experiencing anxiety.
The Bottom Line
Parenting a child with anxiety can be a difficult experience, but parents have an important role to play. They can learn more about their child’s anxiety, lovingly support their children, and seek help from trained, licensed professionals when needed. Remember—you’ve got this.
Learning how to help someone with anxiety can also make it easier to recognize when additional support is needed, and fortunately, there are proven treatments available to manage the condition. To get help for a child with anxiety, start with a free consultation from a licensed Handspring Health therapist today.
Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP). Help Your Child Manage Anxiety: Tips for Home & School.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Panic Disorder in Children and Adolescents.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Your Adolescent - Anxiety and Avoidant Disorders.
Bhatia MS, Goyal A. Anxiety disorders in children and adolescents: Need for early detection. J Postgrad Med. 2018 Apr-Jun;64(2):75-76. doi: 10.4103/jpgm.JPGM_65_18. PMID: 29692397; PMCID: PMC5954816.
National Institute of Mental Health (NIH). Child and Adolescent Mental Health.
Nemours Kids Health. Anxiety Disorders.
UNICEF. What are panic attacks?