Anxiety is an increasingly common problem among children and young people, with approximately 1 in 10 people experiencing it at some point in their lives.
Some level of anxiety is common to everyone. We only consider anxiety a disorder when it starts to have a significant impact on a person's day to day life and/or leads to a significant amount of distress. There are many different types of anxiety disorders and they all affect how children and young people think, feel and behave. Some are more common in young children and others in adolescents but they can all occur at any age.
Often, there’s no one single cause of anxiety. A range of different factors can contribute, such as genetic factors and stressful life events. Anxiety can fluctuate over time and at times of stress, such as family separations, school transitions and exam periods.
The most common types of anxiety are:
Social anxiety disorder is an anxiety relating to embarrassing oneself or being judged negatively by others. This can make certain situations at school particularly difficult, for example group work, performance situations and asking for help.
Generalised anxiety is worrying excessively about a range of different issues, which are difficult to control. GAD is often accompanied with unpleasant physical symptoms.
Separation anxiety relates to difficulties being apart from a parent or carer, resulting from fear that if they’re separated, something bad might happen to them or their parent. These fears can make school attendance particularly difficult.
Panic is intense feelings of anxiety with prominent physical symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, chest pains, sweating and tingling. Panic attacks can have a specific trigger or come out of nowhere. Once a panic attack has occurred, it’s usual to have an intense fear of future panic attacks.
Specific phobia is an excessive fear of a particular place, object or situation that significantly interferes with a child or young person’s life, for example, needles (injections), spiders or certain animals.
Obsessions are intrusive/repetitive thoughts or images usually followed by an urge to act in a certain way in response to these thoughts. The specific behaviours, rituals and/or routines that follow are known as compulsions. Children and young people feel uncomfortable or anxious when unable to complete them.
Anxiety disorders can have physical, psychological and behavioural symptoms that can vary between each individual.
Increased heart rate, headaches, nausea, vomiting, sweating, restlessness, dizziness, muscle tension, shaking, tingling and difficulty breathing.
A tendency to overestimate the severity and likelihood of something bad happening and underestimate their ability to cope. For example: “I’m going to forget my presentation, everyone will laugh at me and I won’t know what to do.” Unhelpful thinking styles such as catastrophising, mind-reading and predicting the future are also symptoms.
It’s common for children and young people with anxiety to avoid situations/activities that they find anxiety provoking, e.g. group tasks, presentations and injections.
Anxiety can manifest in different ways depending on the individual and anxiety disorder. It’s therefore sometimes difficult to identify.
Some children and young people feel that their anxiety is their fault. They blame themselves for being anxious. Some might not even know what they’re experiencing is anxiety. This can make it really hard for them to talk to other people about how they feel and to ask for help. When they do manage to talk about how they feel, they often feel much better, and experience a sense of relief.
If you’ve tried to support the child or young person by using the techniques on the ‘managing anxiety’ page and they’re still having difficulties, there’s lots of support available in your area. You can find information about this in the Local Offer.
If the symptoms of anxiety are interfering significantly with their day to day life and/or you are concerned that they may be at risk of harm, for example by not eating or by harming themselves, talk to your GP, another health professional about what other support is available.
If you need urgent help, call 0300 365 1234.
You can find help at:
Creswell, C. & Willetts, L. (2007). Overcoming Your Child’s Fears and Worries: A self-help guide using cognitive behavioural techniques. London: Constable & Robinson.
Willetts, L. & Creswell, C. (2007). Overcoming Your Child’s Shyness & Social Anxiety: A self-help guide using cognitive behavioral techniques. London: Constable & Robinson.
Michael, Tompkins & Martinez (2009) My anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic.