How to recognise anxiety in your child

Feeling a certain amount of stress or worry about COVID-19 is to be expected, but for some children, it may trigger anxiety. As a parent, knowing what to look for and how you can support them will help.

Even as restrictions begin to ease, the coronavirus pandemic continues to be a stressful time for many people, including children.

“Different age groups will have different levels of comprehension about what’s going on, but children of all ages may feel stressed, unsafe and uncertain right now, particularly as the goalposts continue to change with restrictions easing,” says Dr Grant Blashki, a GP and Beyond Blue’s lead Clinical Advisor.

“This can be particularly true if they see the adults around them looking worried or stressed.”

While a certain level of stress and worry is one thing – and may even be expected during this time – anxiety is something different.

“There’s certainly a continuum between stress and anxiety,” says Blashki, “and while there’s not an absolutely clear line in the sand when one becomes the other, there are some warning signs to be aware of and act on.”

Recognising signs of anxiety in your child

Signs to look out for include if your child frequently gets upset or angry more easily than usual, is often worried and/or fearful, and goes out of their way to avoid new situations or doing anything that makes them feel anxious.

Blashki says there are also four questions you can ask which will help determine whether your child is experiencing anxiety – rather than a normal level of stress or worry – in response to the pandemic.

1. Is it impacting their daily life? “Anxiety often affects a child’s ability to function normally day to day, meaning they can find it harder than usual to cope well with typical, every-day stresses.”

2. Is it all encompassing? “This means considering whether what they’re experiencing has started to affect every aspect of their life, in all settings, as opposed to just certain things or situations.”

3. How long has it been going on? “While rules and restrictions are changing regularly, allowing for some transition time is important,” says Blashki. “For example, it may take a bit of time for some children to feel confidence about being back at school. If signs of anxiety persist for more than two weeks, that’s a red flag.”

4. How severe is it? “Compared to slight worry or stress, anxiety can result in physical symptoms like feeling sick, sleeplessness and stomach aches.” Other common symptoms of anxiety in children include irritability, difficulty concentrating and sitting still, and fatigue.

What you can do

If you’re concerned that your child is feeling anxious, the following strategies can help.

  • Support them. “Using your common sense regarding your child’s age and personality, there’s a lot you can do as a parent to support them,” says Blashki. Talking to them about coronavirus in an age-appropriate way is a good place to start. “Help them achieve and keep perspective and maintain a sense of hope. Remind them that physical distancing and hygiene ‘rules’ are all part of helping the community look after vulnerable people. Appealing to their sense of altruism can make the changes we’re living with seem like a positive, productive thing rather than a reminder for children that there’s something to worry about.” Find strategies to support anxious children on the Healthy Families website.
  • Stay informed. “Search for credible information about what anxiety is and how it affects children specifically, so that you understand more about it and what you can do to help.” Find useful information about anxiety in children aged 6-12.
  • Seek help. “If you’re worried, contact your GP. As well as providing advice and support, they may – if appropriate – establish a mental-health-care plan for your child, which allows for up to 10 Medicare-rebated sessions with a psychologist.” View support options for children.

This content is proudly funded by one of Beyond Blue’s Major Partners, Future Generation Global Investment Company.

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