Anxiety in children and young people is a growing concern for schools and colleges across the UK. Discover the various types, the impacts, and how to manage the issue as a school leader, teacher or a member of pastoral support staff.
Anxiety is a growing and extensive issue affecting millions of people in the UK, including children.
Statistics from The Children’s Society show how one in six children between the ages of 5 and 16 suffer from a mental health problem such as anxiety. That amounts to five children in a classroom of 30.
While it is normal for young people to experience fears and worries, anxiety can significantly affect development and hold children back from reaching their full potential.
That is why schools, colleges, and other educational establishments must strive to equip teachers and staff with the understanding and application of necessary procedures and techniques when dealing with anxiety in children, to best provide support and encourage resilience skills, so that children are able to deal with further incidences as they arise in the future.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is closely associated with feelings of intense worry and fear. Various anxious feelings and disorders can be mild or severe and triggered by numerous causes. For example, after experiencing anxiety, the memory can cause a fear of anxiety itself.
Children can feel anxious about numerous things at different ages. A child who might not show any signs of anxiety as a toddler may become anxious later in their development as they enter primary or secondary school.
Post-pandemic, many children are experiencing anxiety for the first time. This may be health-anxiety, social-anxiety or related to other adverse experiences they were exposed to during lockdown.
Anxiety is a medically diagnosed condition and although schools can support children with anxious, or related, feelings, they must not use specific medical terms when talking with the children or their parents.
The various types of anxiety in children include the following disorders. If you suspect children in your settings are experiencing symptoms of these disorders, parents should be advised to seek medical support.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) produces excessive and unfounded worrying over specific situations, from school performance, activities, personal safety, family health or natural disasters.
Children suffering from GAD struggle to switch off the worrying, leading to difficulties concentrating, learning and social participation. GAD is particularly prevalent in both primary and secondary-aged pupils.
Children with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) will suffer from obsessive and intrusive thoughts. As a release from their unwanted obsessions, children will perform repetitive actions and compulsions.
OCD commonly occurs between the ages of eight and twelve but can affect a child at any time during their development.
Extreme fear and discomfort in scenarios can cause children to suffer panic attacks. Typically, panic disorders affect children during their teenage years.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety disorder is commonly seen in very young children when separated from their parents, guardians, or caregivers. This disorder can affect a child’s development, socially and academically, causing them to struggle to make friends and trust the company or environment of others without their parents.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety will affect a child’s ability to function in a social setting. The excessive worry of being rejected or embarrassed by others, especially those more unfamiliar, can lead to children not making friends or staying on their own in certain situations.
Fears are common in young people. But when they struggle to overcome these fears, they can develop into a phobia.
Phobias can affect children as young as five, where an irrational and persistent fear of objects, animals, or situations can significantly impact their learning.
Selective mutism is a severe disorder causing children to not speak in certain situations, such as in the classroom or on the playground. While a child might talk freely to their parents at home, they can experience a freeze response causing their silence in certain situations.
For the child, this is not a choice. They literally remain unable to speak. Generally, selective mutism begins in early childhood between the ages of two and four and affects one in 140 young children.
Why Is It Important to Tackle Anxiety Early?
Targeting signs of anxiety earlier in a child’s life is crucial to maintaining healthy development. Failing to recognise severe anxiety in children could hamper their school performance, future career options, and other personal outcomes in later life.
For example, if a child’s anxiety is left ignored, it can develop into more intense forms of depression and significantly affect their wellbeing.
The longer it is allowed to manifest, the harder it is to try and solve and cure. Sometimes, there is no cure for anxiety disorders, but confronting it early, can prevent it from becoming a life-altering issue.
Social anxiety, panic attacks, and separation anxiety in older children are manageable with understanding, techniques, and procedures.
How To Manage Anxiety in Children
Identifying Anxiety in Children
Firstly, recognising anxiety as a problem, not a natural reaction, is the first step to managing it. When anxiety begins to get in the way of daily life, there is a significant issue with the condition requiring support.
For example, most children naturally feel nervous on their first day in a new school or during exam periods. However, when a child refuses to attend school or function within a certain setting, the anxiety is too severe to ignore.
What to Say to a Child with Anxiety?
After recognising the anxiety, the next step is to try and engage the child in conversation over their disorder. This should be done alongside parents and where necessary, medical opinion should be sought.
It is essential that children can recognise individual emotions, such as sadness, worry and anger, and that these do not become ‘lumped’ together under the umbrella term of anxiety.
Depending on the age, this can prove challenging and requires the teacher or supporting adult to show sensitivity, compassion and empathy.
For young children, the NHS suggests describes anxiety as “like being a wave that builds and ebbs away.”
Speaking to the child about their worries and fears is crucial, but while providing emotional support, it’s imperative to enable them to find independent solutions.
In an age and development stage appropriate way, children should be encouraged to talk about and ‘face’ their fear- but this should be approached with caution, to avoid a distress reaction such as a panic attack or traumatic response.
Teaching the child to identify signs of anxiety, to talk about it openly and ask for help enables them to best access the emotional support they need and thus allowing them to be more receptive to actions and solutions suggested.
Other solutions can include:
- Speaking to fellow teachers, school leaders or pastoral support staff about your worries for the child
- Sensitively addressing your concerns to the child’s parents
- Encouraging regular routines and opportunities for the child to develop their emotional problem-solving skills
- Providing resources that can help anxious children understand their feelings
- Preparing children for changes and events such as school transitions and exams
- Practising relaxation techniques and providing with a ‘toolbox’ of self-administered actions to use when they are experiencing anxious feelings. For example, counting down, deep breaths or grounding
- Creating a worry box where the child can write down and deposit any worries
Despite anxiety being a complicated issue, many procedures and techniques can help distract, relax, and prevent issues from manifesting into serious mental health problems.
Quick identification and intervention are key in supporting children and minimising escalation of symptoms.
A united approach is essential, involving both the child and their family in finding solutions and accessing further support where necessary.
If you suspect a child you teach is suffering from anxiety, you need to follow your setting’s policy for referral for support, whether this is to your pastoral team, in-house ELSA or THRIVE practitioner or to external agencies such as CAMHS.
A Teacher’s Guide to Managing Anxiety in Children
As teachers, providing a safe environment does not just concern physical safety but emotional safety too.
While it is normal for children to feel anxious, quick identification of more serious anxiety is essential in protecting a child from mental health issues later down the line.
At Services For Education, we help equip schools and colleges with the necessary resources and learning programmes that can help them manage emotional health and wellbeing within their settings.
We have multiple courses aimed at protecting young people’s emotional and mental wellbeing, including:
- Managing Anxiety in Children and Young People Webinar and Podcast – This learning resource is CPD accredited and helps teachers understand natural physiological responses to anxiety and helps children manage them. It is led by Liz Bates – a specialist in mental health and emotional wellbeing after 25 years of teaching.
- Emotionally Safe Classroom – Helping professionals develop emotional understandings in the classroom.
- Dealing with Loss and Bereavement – An online video-led course showing you how to support a bereaved child.