The Anxious Child

One of the most common reasons that parents contact a child psychologist is for help in dealing with an anxious child.  When a child is anxious his or her clearly visible distress is felt by parents, but not always understood.  The child is often fearful about situations that had never even crossed this parent’s mind as a problem when he or she was a child.  Good advice that parents may give on how to deal with anxiety-provoking situations is often not taken up by the child and the pain seems to grow year by year.


Some anxiety is healthy and serves to protect a child from accidents.  A child who makes a run for it as soon as the car door is opened is likely to hurl himself into danger, but a child who is lifted from a vehicle and flattens herself against the car in a catatonic state of terror is far beyond a healthy state of caution.  How do you coax such a child to be comfortable just waiting close to the car?

At certain ages separation anxiety is experienced by a majority of children.  It is a normal part of their social development.  Up to the age of around six months most babies can be left with others and held by strangers without any protesting.  However, at around six months of age they often don’t like to be separated from their parents, or react with hesitation or fear to people they don’t see every day.  Separation anxiety usually peaks at 12 months and then diminishes, disappearing before the second birthday.  Parents can help their children through this phase by staying calm and giving the child time to become familiar with new people and places.

Separation anxiety can re-occur briefly on the first days at a new child care centre, or when school begins.  Parents can minimise a child’s insecurity with starting at a new place by preparing him ahead of time, explaining what will be happening and taking him for a visit beforehand.  Once there, teach the child a few simple steps to do each time – say hello, start an activity, kiss Mum good-bye.  Children usually adjust quickly when they can see a routine.

Sometimes a previously confident child can suddenly become anxious, behaving as though he is terrified to be left.  Parents become disconcerted and wonder what horrible experience occurred at day care to make the child so fearful.  However, more often than not, the anxiety is in reaction to things that have been going on at home – family stress, serious illness, or parents in conflict.  Research done some years ago showed that children exposed to parents’ fighting had much higher cortisol levels (a measure of distress) than children in a natural disaster or a war zone.  Regardless of their outward behaviour, kids find parental conflict extremely upsetting.

An anxious disposition can also simply be a reflection of the child’s innate personality.  Anxiety seems to be especially heightened if the child is also very creative, and quite intelligent.  Children with this combination of traits not only have a highly creative imagination, they sometimes also have tendency towards fearing the worst in every situation.  Hence, shadows on the wall at night become monsters, and sounds outside become burglars.

What can a parent do to help a child manage anxiety?  There are three very simple but important components to the daily life of every child that create a sense of security and enable confidence to grow.  Although some children manage okay without these in place for periods of time, for the anxious child these are imperative, and all children benefit from them being part of their upbringing.

These keys are:

  1. 1. Routine – Doing activities at the same time and in the same order every day of every week.
  2. 2. Consistency – What is okay today, is okay tomorrow.  It doesn’t depend on a parent’s moods or who is in charge today.
  3. 3. Predictability – If things have to change, and that’s sometimes unavoidable, prepare the child well for what to expect.

If you need help with incorporating these into your child’s daily life, or have other queries about an anxious child feel free to contact us by clicking here, or

Phone Goldwyn Lane on (07) 5564 2202