Anxiety in children
06 January 2017
Legal & General asked Psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin to explain some of the common anxieties in children and what you can do to help your child worry less, here's what she told us:
Being worried is a normal part of being human. Children - with all their wonderful imagination skills but not yet fully formed reasoning skills - experience many worries as they go through life. It can be difficult as a parent to watch your child be worried, but this is an essential part of learning about feelings and how to manage them.
The most common anxieties for children are:
Monsters - until about the age of 10 children are still developing the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. This is what makes believing in Father Christmas and the tooth fairy possible. But this is also what makes believing there's a monster under their bed possible.
Natural disasters - as they grow, children enjoy learning more about the world. But with this increasing awareness of global issues comes an awareness that sometimes natural disasters happen, such as earthquakes and floods.
Something bad happening to parents - from the age of about 7 years it is children can worry about something happening to you. This is because brain growth (‘cognitive development’) means that a child can now think about the longer term, and can start to hypothesise about things happening in the future.
Spiders and other 'creepy crawlies' – we fear things that are unfamiliar. Creepy crawlies can look quite unusual to a child and can trigger anxiety.
Dogs – it is natural for children to be frightened of dogs when they don’t live with them.
New situations - depending on your child’s temperament, they will be more or less comfortable going into new situations. This is a natural survival strategy, but it can get in the way of your child trying new things.
Separation from mum or dad - children are designed to want to be close to their parents. After all, this is how they feel and stay safe. At around the age of 9 months and again at 18 months there is a peak in separation anxiety, believed to coincide with cognitive development. As they get older, children can show separation anxiety when they start pre-school or school.
School work and exams - even primary school aged children are feeling the pressure of increased school work and exams. Their anxiety about not doing well can spill over into other aspects of life.
Going on holiday - while being on holiday can be fun and exciting, it can make children anxious because of the change in routine. If you are stressed about going on holiday, so will your children be.
Water - children can often be anxious about water. For a lot of children this is a sensory issue, to do with the feel of water. For others it is fear of something bad happening to them when they’re in water
What can you do as a parent to help your child worry less?
1. Show your child how to deal with worries by modelling relaxed, rational behaviour. Children learn by watching, so if you show that you are scared or worried, your child will be too. If this is really difficult, use this opportunity to get some help to tackle your worries. Not only will you be helping yourself, but you will also be helping your child.
2. Talk to your child about their worries – worries feel so much easier to deal with when we have someone else’s perspective to help tackle them. For example, explain that while there are monsters in stories there aren’t in real life. This will help them understand the distinction between imagination and reality.
3. Normalising is an important part of worry management. Let your child know that it is completely normal to worry about these things and that our brains have been designed to think about negative things, but that this doesn’t mean that the bad things will happen.
4. Reassure – help your child to understand their worry and then reassure them by talking through the likelihoods of the worrying thing happening. For example, when talking about natural disasters acknowledge that it can feel worrying living in an ever changing world, but the likelihood of these catastrophic events happening is very low.
5. Hug your child – parent can worry about saying the wrong thing and making things worse. Sometimes, children don’t understand all the words we use when we talk about worries. So, a big hug instead can say a million words.
6. Brave talk – tell your child how strong and capable they are. This will help them feel better equipped to deal with worry provoking situations.
7. Breath – teach your child how to take deep breaths to help them relax.
8. Don’t avoid – anxiety feeds off avoidance. Although it is natural to not do something because it makes us feel anxious, children need to learn that anxiety goes down the more familiar we are with a situation or thing.
If you think your child’s worries are taking over their life and stopping them from doing things they used to enjoy, or affecting their sleep and eating, chat to your Health Visitor or GP to find out what support there is for you all.
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