It can be one of the most devastating things to handle when your child is struggling with their mental health. It can be tricky to know how to best tackle things and what support to offer. And sadly, with cases of child referrals for mental health rising 39% at the start of 2023, it seems like a lot of families are dealing with this challenge.
Anxiety is a common battle of mental health and, just like with adults, can present itself in children with physical symptoms like migraines, stomach aches and sleepless nights.
Young people often experience lots of change in their lives in a short period of time. And, this can increase the risk of anxious feelings and anxiety. Factors that can increase the risk of anxiety in teenagers include:
pressure from schoolwork and exams
divorce or separation of parents
problems within friendship groups
changes such as moving house or school
financial or housing problems
having a parent with anxiety
If you’re worrying about a child with anxiety, you’re not alone. It’s become a common discussion point in our Talk Boards too.
‘Why is there so much anxiety in kids?’ JudesBiggestFan asked in a recent thread.
Here at Mumsnet, we’re fortunate to have a great community of people who are happy to share their honest opinions and trusted advice and tips. Mental health battles can feel like a lonely one but you’re not alone.
And alongside expert advice and guidance with BUPA, we’ve rounded up some of the best tips to help navigate a child with anxiety. From spotting symptoms to discussing it as a family and even how to seek further help.
What are the common symptoms of anxiety in children?
Like with adults, anxiety can present itself in physical form as well as mental. Your child may struggle to sleep, complain about feeling restless or on edge.
They may appear more irritable and struggle to focus or concentrate. Their appetite may suffer or they may even want to eat more. And they may even suffer with physical pain, such as migraines or stomach ache.
In older children, they may show little enthusiasm for things, appear to have little confidence in themselves and express negative thoughts and fears over things that could happen.
What causes anxiety in children?
The NHS say that from six months to three years, children can experience separation anxiety - which can cause them to become very clingy and get upset or anxious when separated from their parents or caregiver.
Children are often going through big changes and may experience anxiety around starting a new school, taking on a new subject or making new friends. It’s also common for children to develop phobias of things such as bugs, heights, water or blood.
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How to discuss anxiety with your children
No matter what, talking is key and it’s important to keep those channels of communications open at all times. Make it clear to your child that they can talk to you about whatever worry or fear they’re having - without judgement.
Many of our Mumsnetters found it helpful to get their children to ‘name their feelings.’
One Mumsnetter said: “Encourage her to talk about all of this. Name her feelings. It's ok to feel this way, it's normal. Talk about it.”
Research has shown that adolescents are less likely to ask for support themselves. Often, they need or prefer adults in their life to arrange help for them. The good news is that there are lots of things that can help anxiety in teenagers. These can include the following:
Seeking support from school. Many schools provide mental health training for teachers and may also offer school-based counselling.
Go online. Mental health charities like Young Minds specialise in providing mental health support for young people. Their website has lots of resources and advice for your loved one to access and read if they’d like to.
Consider counselling. Counselling sessions with a trained mental health professional can provide young people with a safe space to share how they’re feeling. Your GP can provide further information on available local counselling services.
Local support groups. These are confidential meetings providing an opportunity to meet other people with anxiety. And, it can be a way to share experiences and coping strategies. Your GP can provide details of local support groups that your teenager can attend, if they’d like to.
CBT. Talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help your teenager manage their anxiety. CBT focuses on how our thoughts can impact our feelings and behaviour and works to try and change these patterns of thinking.
Applied relaxation therapy. This is another form of talking therapy that works by helping you learn to relax your muscles at times when you usually experience anxiety.
Medication. Your GP may refer your loved one to a specialist who can assess whether medication is a suitable option.
It’s important that you keep talking to your child. For younger children, you may find that they feel more able to open up during art, music or play. Use children’s wellbeing activities to boost their confidence and distract them from dwelling on any negative thoughts.
Similarly, spend quality time together. A child who’s alone or bored may not know how to express their feelings or understand what’s happening to them.
If you’re really concerned about your child, don’t be afraid to seek expert help. Mental health charities like Young Minds specialise in providing mental health support for young people.
Their website has lots of resources and advice for your loved one to access and read if they’d like to.
Read next: Mindfulness for kids and activities to try
How to discuss anxiety with younger children
It can be hard to know how to phrase things with small children. So experts at BUPA recommend using things like art, music or play to help.
One of our Mumsnetters Howmanysleepsnow revealed in a forum that they used some toys to help with anxiety.
“We have 3 McDonald’s ty toys that currently stand in for Mexican worry dolls: he tells them a worry (or 3!) each at bedtime and then they sleep under his pillow to mind his worries until morning.”
Another of our Mumsnetters suggested having a worry box. “You can get the toys from places like the works but can easily make a box from something like a cereal box making it a fun activity,” namechangin said.
“There's a book that you can read before starting this too. I think it's called the worry box which can help him connect his behaviour to the characters and explore coping strategies.”
Another Mumsnetter used art to help with their child’s anxiety. Rosehugger explained: “get them to draw what they are worried about, have a time to discuss worries with you, is very interactive and something you can do together.”
Create confidence with activities and hobbies
Experts at BUPA suggest using children’s wellbeing activities to boost their confidence and distract them from dwelling on any negative thoughts. Simply spending time with your children and finding enjoyment together can be helpful.
Our Mumsnetters have also found that after school activities were invaluable for their mental health. One wrote: “I did a lot of activities with like-minded people, and the bonus was I even became halfway competent at dancing, acting and horse-riding!”
Learn to use breathing and meditation techniques with your child
Breathing exercises and mindfulness can really help to reduce intense feelings of anxiety and create a sense of calm.
BUPA has many examples of breathing exercises that you could try with your child online and there is also plenty of support on YouTube and other social media platforms.
Our Mumsnetters have found this technique invaluable. PetuliaBlavatsky said: “My kids often have a guided sleep meditation at bedtime, there are loads on YouTube. They are not particularly anxious but do have nightmares at times and then get more agitated about going to sleep. They find them really helpful.”
Chocolateavocado99 added: “I have done night time meditation with dd2 since she was 4 and it really helps her to focus and sleep.”
Create a comfort kit
For younger children, BUPA suggests creating a comfort kit of their favourite things to help ease their anxiety. Click here to watch Sammy the Snail show your child how to create their own kit and use it when needed.
Find helpful books to read with your child
There are so many amazing books out there designed to not only discuss anxiety with your children but find helpful techniques to combat it.
Ruby’s Worry is a bestseller and one of our Mumsnetter said: “Ruby's worry is a great book. The illustrations show how a little girl's worry gets bigger and bigger. Then she is able to manage it.”
Mumsnetter clopper said: “We used ‘what to do when you worry too much’ . The author Dawn Huebner has written a really good series related to different childhood emotions. There are good explanations in child friendly language and activities to go alongside.”
And one Mumsnetter added: “CBT based books such as the anxiety gremlin or don’t worry, be happy, can provide some tools and language for acknowledging and managing the anxiety.”
When to seek help for your child
If you don’t feel like you’re seeing any improvement in your child and their anxiety is becoming hard to manage, you can see advice from your local GP.
Alternatively, you can use BUPA’s finder to locate Bupa-recognised consultants, psychologists, therapists, counsellors and other professionals near you.
Bupa has been a respected leader in healthcare since 1947. Committed to improving global well-being, Bupa provides diverse healthcare services including insurance, clinics, hospitals, and wellness programs. Their holistic approach, guided by medical experts, prioritises evidence-based care. Bupa's mission is to empower people to manage their health effectively, promoting inclusivity and innovation for healthier lives.
About the author
Kat Romero is a writer and journalist with over a decade’s experience in the industry. Hailing from London, she has become experienced in scouring the market to find the best products, advice and top tips for parents and families.
Away from her desk, Kat can be found consuming far too much coffee and spending her weekends with her toddler and partner, soaking up the sights of London, and sampling anything new and exciting that has opened up within walking distance.