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Overview of anxiety in children

Anxiety is a common emotion in tamariki (children). It's usually an appropriate response by tamariki children to new or difficult situations or changes in their environment, such as starting a new school or moving to a new house.

If you give your tamaiti (child) reassurance and encourage them to learn how to cope for themselves, their anxiety usually goes away.

Anxiety tends to be about things like going away on a school camp or starting a new school year. It can also be about school pressures or going to the doctor.

For most tamariki, their anxieties go away or change as they get older and learn that the situations aren't as bad as they feared.

Excessive anxiety is more complicated and tends to cause more problems.

A tamaiti child has excessive anxiety if they keep being anxious despite reassurance. Another sign is if their behaviour changes in response to their anxiety. For example, starting to avoid situations to reduce the intensity of their feelings.

Possible causes of anxiety in children

Your tamaiti may be anxious about specific issues or events, or they may worry about many things. You may know about these problems and be trying to help. Or you may not appreciate how much these problems are affecting your tamaiti. It's common for parents to underestimate how anxious their tamaiti is.

Problems could be:

Tamariki don't have as many skills for coping with difficulties as adults. Often, they don’t know how to explain their problems, let alone ask for help.

Unfortunately, some tamariki are exposed to violence, abuse or neglect. Sometimes anxiety is the way they express their distress about this. If there's a possibility that a tamaiti child is at risk of harm or in danger, contact Oranga Tamariki Ministry for Children, phone 0508-326-459.

Symptoms of anxiety in children

A tamaiti with anxiety can have a wide range of symptoms. The symptoms can look like physical health issues, personality quirks or naughtiness. They can be broken down into physical, behavioural and emotional symptoms.

Physical symptoms

  • stomach pains
  • headaches
  • weight loss
  • skin conditions
  • nausea
  • diarrhoea.

Behavioural symptoms

  • not sleeping
  • picky eating
  • constantly needing attention
  • checking in repeatedly
  • clinginess
  • constant hand washing
  • avoiding school
  • defiance
  • not participating in activities.

Emotional symptoms

  • nightmares
  • tearfulness
  • attention and concentration problems
  • angry outbursts
  • irritability.

If the underlying cause isn't identified and addressed, these symptoms can become difficult to manage. They can affect more and more areas of life.

Treating anxiety in children

Treatment for anxiety in tamariki children depends on how severe the problem is. Many tamariki have mild symptoms that don't impact their daily life very much. They just need consistency from their parents and teachers and help to learn the skills to manage their fears and worries.

Other tamariki have more serious anxiety problems. They may need group courses, family therapy, play therapy or one-to-one therapy. The therapy is likely to involve the tamaiti and their parents. Often the parents will need treatment for their own anxiety.

Medications aren't usually used to treat anxiety in tamariki.

On the next page: Helping your child with anxiety

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed November 2021.

Sources

See also:

Anxiety in adults for general information about anxiety and where to go for support.

Anxiety in youth & teens

Children of parents with a mental illness or addiction

Reading in Mind book scheme

Stress in youth & teens (includes information on exam stress and anxiety).

Page reference: 538747

Review key: HIAXC-538744