Understanding children's and young people's anxiety

There is so much exposure for our children in society, with such easy access to social media and an increase in cyberbullying, self-harm, low self-esteem, social isolation, family and peer relationships, depression, suicidal thoughts, identity, exams and some type of sexual exploitation, it is very difficult for children, young people and parents to manage these issues. This can be detrimental to their mental, physical and emotional well-being, with some children as young as eight years old experiencing such issues.

Many children and young people tell me how hard it is dealing with this exposure, creating anxiety for any number of the reasons listed above and how this affects every aspect of their lives and stops them from being able to do the simplest of everyday things, such as going to the local shop. 

School is another one of the toughest environments for children and young people, the influence of their peers, trying to fit in or even wanting to be an individual is met with so much judgement, criticisms and rejection, is it any wonder that it is so tough. Along with the ever increasing pressure to do well academically, they are attending school in the holidays in order to support their studies.  

I have not yet met a child or young person that has not been affected by some sort of social media negativity and school-related issues, which the outcome is them feeling, not good enough. You can then understand why children and young people are experiencing increasing anxiety, with all of this flooding of information and expectations placed upon them.

With all the layers and levels of anxiety, it can be so confusing for children and young people to make sense of the meanings or impact of why they feel so anxious.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is when there is a continuing fear and panic on a regular basis in everyday situations, but it is not always apparent why someone is having these feelings. There is a sense of feeling worried about every little thing and a sense of paranoia leading to thoughts of, not feeling good enough and everyone/thing is against you.

Anxiety can have various physical symptoms like, sweaty palms, shortness of breath, light headed, butterflies in the stomach or cramps, dry mouth, racing thoughts and not being able to concentrate. When experiencing these physical feelings and thoughts there will be rushes of adrenaline that is racing through the body.

Dealing with anxiety

There are many ways to deal with anxiety depending on the severity of the anxiety that is being experienced. 

I have listed below the different scales I use when working with children and young people and some suggestions on how to support anxiety at each level.

Low level - Still being able to have some control over anxiety at this level, this is at the early stages and using breathing exercises (see below), downloading calming apps, speaking to family and friends, can calm down thoughts and physicals symptoms. 

Anxiety at this level can be healthy too, as it is normal to have some anxious feelings, like doing a talk in front of others, or stage fright, exams etc, this can challenge them and make them excel in certain areas.

Moderate level - This is when it is good to access support from 'talking therapies' to deal with thoughts and emotions, this then can prevent anxiety from escalating further. Also still using the above techniques such as mindfulness exercises, talking to friends and family, also colouring in, drawing, music, writing a journey, taking a walk in the park etc. 

High level - It is advisable to make an appointment to see a GP and discuss their anxiety with health professionals, which would be in conjunction with still seeking counselling. Also using the above techniques to support, but this may feel harder for them to be able to concentrate on.

Where possible encourage them to take the time to sit with the feelings of anxiety until it passes, this is the most effective way to deal with anxiety. I mentioned above anxiety is a rush of adrenaline, which will then only reach a certain point, before it will come back down again. This is why practising breathing techniques is key, breath deep and slow in through the nose for three counts and out through the mouth for three counts, repeat until the mind and body is calm. Other tips are to stand up and feel your feet, this is called ‘grounding’ and you can do this anywhere.

Parents supporting a child 

It is important for parent(s) to understand their child’s anxiety and what level of anxiety they are experiencing to then gauge the best way that you can help them. I have put some tips and guidance below as a starting point.

  • Ask your child when they feel most anxious, being able to break this down then can give you an understanding their anxiety they are experiencing, low, moderate or high. You can then monitor this going forward to identify if you need to seek professional support.
  • Get your child to think about what they do when they are feeling like this so you understand how they already deal with anxiety, as they already have coping strategies they just don’t realise it.
  • Help your child practice the breathing exercises and talk through other ways of dealing with anxiety from the information above.
  • Reassure your child, let them know it is going to be ok and give them a hug, reinforce it can be normal to feel anxious and it will pass.
  • Arrange some quality time with them away from everyone else, go shopping, have, lunch, see a film together etc.
  • Support with a healthy routine, eating at the same time, not eating too much junk food and sugar-based drinks turn off of social media/phones a couple of hours before bedtime, same bedtime on a school night etc.
  • Getting them to write down their worries of the day and then get them to rip them up or put them in a jar, as the day has gone.

Your child is the expert on their own anxiety and they can provide you with the information you need to help them with how they experience it. The key is to make them feel emotionally safe to be ok to share it with you. Some children and young people do not want to worry their parents if you feel this is the case then ask them if they would like to talk to someone outside the family and follow this through asap. This could be an aunt, uncle, cousin, grandparent or alternately some counselling. Sometimes they don’t know how to make sense of how they are feeling and need a neutral party to help them work it out, but it must be their choice otherwise it won’t be beneficial to them.

Here is some information on services to contact for advice and information both for your child and you as the parent.

Young Minds Crisis Messenger. Helpline for parents for free 0808 802 5544 (Mon-Fri 9:30 - 16:00)
Provides free, 24/7 crisis support across the UK if you are experiencing a mental health crisis
If you need urgent help text YM to 85258. All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors.

Texts are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus. 

No Panic www.nopanic.org.uk 

No Panic are the people to call if you are suffering from panic attacks, OCD, phobias, and other related anxiety disorders. Helpline: 0844 967 4848 (Daily 10:00 – 22:00 Charges apply)
Youth Helpline for 13 - 20 yr olds: 0330 606 1174 (Mon - Fri 15:00 – 18:00  Charges apply)
Having a panic attack? Crisis number with a recording of a breathing technique: 01952  680835 (24 hr)
Email: admin@nopanic.org.uk 

Childline www.childline.org.uk 
If you're under 19 you can confidentially call, email or chat online about any problem big or small
Freephone 24h helpline: 0800 1111

Sign up for a childline account on the website to be able to message a counsellor anytime without using your email address
Chat 1:1 with an online advisor

The Mix www.themix.org.uk 
If you're under 25 you can talk to The Mix for free on the phone, by email or on their webchat. You can also use their phone counselling service, or get more information on support services you might need. 
Freephone: 0808 808 4994 (13:00-23:00 daily)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Basingstoke, Hampshire, RG21 3DZ
Written by Ann-Marie Masson, (BACP Registered Member)
Basingstoke, Hampshire, RG21 3DZ

I have spent the past 15 years working as a qualified Relate counsellor and trainer, specialising in working with relational issues. Along side of this, I have built up a successful practice practice working with couples, individuals, children and young people supporting them in improving their emotional and mental well-being.

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