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Anxiety in Young Children - What It Looks Like

Anxiety in Children

I recently attended a very interesting and eye opening training and thought it would be helpful to share some of the information. The training was on Crisis Prevention ( in the classroom (I work in preschool with special education children). The majority of the emphasis, however, was on how to identify anxiety in order to prevent a potential 'crisis' in the classroom.  The information I am sharing here is relevant for both parents and teachers of young children.

Anxiety is a normal part of development and tends to follow a developmental sequence. Infants may show anxiety (fearfulness) when a loud noise occurs or a sudden loss of physical support occurs. Young children between the ages of 9 months and 2 years often exhibit separation anxiety which is an indication of the development of a healthy attachment to caregivers.

This type of anxiety is worse for young children who have had either too few or too frequent separations from caregivers. Young children who experience this anxiety will be clingy and usually cry at the time of separation - and some may even become more tearful and upset when their parent comes back to pick them up even if they have had a good day in the meantime. Separation anxiety usually decreases between the ages of 2 and 3 years.

5 factors that may contribute to increased separation anxiety:

  • change in child's routine
  • change in family (new baby, divorce, etc.)
  • child being sick
  • change in caregiver or daycare or preschool
  • child being tired

7 ways to support your child and possibly reduce separation anxiety:

  • acknowledge how your child is feeling (i.e., "I get sad too when…")
  • by saying "it'll be okay - I'll be back soon" - you are not validating your child's feelings
  • try to be cheerful when you leave
  • don't prolong your departure
  • never sneak out - always say goodbye
  • focus on the positive things that will happen when you are gone
  • plan something special (even a yummy treat) for when you pick him up

Another anxiety seen in children is school anxiety. This is seen from young preschoolers on up.  Many young children have a fear of school and will resist going to school especially in the beginning of the year. For many this goes away as the fear of the unknown dissipates, but for some this fear persists and even gets worse. What confounds the problem is that young children are unable to put these fears into words and so they will often "act out" instead.

At home, this can look many different ways. Your child may not sleep well or be slow and apprehensive about getting dressed in the morning. He may be extra clingy and complain of stomachaches or headaches. His behavior may seem oppositional, but in actuality he is really fearful and anxious about going to school.

As parents, it's so easy and natural to want to take away the problem and the fear by saying something like "don't worry, you'll have fun today." How comforting is that to hear? Not very. This of a situation that you encountered that made you somewhat or very anxious. Does hearing "don't worry" help or is it more comforting to hear empathetic and understanding words? Of course the latter.

At school & daycare, it's important for teachers and caregivers to also know what anxiety in children looks like. If not identified and addressed, this behavior can escalate and turn disruptive and undesirable in the classroom.  On the other hand, a child's anxieties about school can cause uncomfortable shyness and this needs to be correctly identified as well.

8 behaviors to look for that may indicate anxiety in a child:

  • fidgeting excessively
  • excessive silliness
  • fast rate of speech
  • agitation
  • avoidance and escape behaviors
  • trembling
  • looking away
  • excessive crying / yelling / screaming

Empathetic Listening is the active process of accepting and confirming your child's/student's fears and it involves the following:

  • give undivided attention
  • always acknowledge the problem
  • be non-judgmental & sensitive
  • listen for feelings behind the behavior
  • allow silence for reflection
  • restate to help clarify their message (this helps them to communicate their feelings)
  • an empathetic statement like "I get that funny feeling in my tummy too sometimes" can go a long way

For more reading on anxiety in young children, please refer to these two articles:

I found a book that you may find helpful if you are dealing with separation or school anxiety with you child.

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Comments on Anxiety in Young Children - What It Looks Like »

November 6, 2008

Bonnie the Web Designer @ 9:27 pm

Reading your post it sounds like my son is exhibiting signs of anxiety. He was in special ed for 3 years due to developmental speech delay of unknown origin. He has now been mainstreamed into regular school, and every morning we go through hoops to get him to school. He keeps saying it's boring and he doesn't like it. I'm sure it is boring because he's academically advanced, but verbally he's still behind (and still gets speech therapy twice a week). When I ask him what he doesn't like about school, he doesn't answer.

How can you help a child express anxiety if they are not verbal enough to express in detail? Are there any articles or books that can help me with this?

November 8, 2008

Tami @ 7:00 pm

Hi Bonnie,

I would talk to his speech therapist and see if she can get him to talk about his feelings about school. She could work on just feeling in general and work on geting him to verbalize different feelings and then the ones specific to school.

Does his teacher know about his difficult mornings and possible school anxiety?

I added a link at the end of this article to a book that may be helpful.


November 23, 2008

Bonnie the Web Designer @ 1:51 pm

Hi Tami,
Thank you so much for the information! The teacher does know he does not want to school, but she's very defensive and I think she's taking it personally. She insists he seems happy while there (i.e. she doesn't see anything that needs changing). He loves speech so much, that is his favorite part of school. I will ask the therapist to see if she can elicit more information from him. I know kindergarten is a big step for all kids, and perhaps it's the new, stricter structure and academic pressure he doesn't like. I can't believe what they make these kids do these days! They hardly do any crafts at all, and they are expected to be reading and writing like first graders. That even causes anxiety in me!

I will get a copy of that book! We are having separation anxiety issues with our 2-1/2 year old, so it will be helpful for both kids!

Thank you for your input!

Tami @ 5:20 pm


Thanks for the update on your son and the kind words. I hope there is some useful stuff in the book that maybe you can implement for both your kids. Yes, there are quite a bit of expectations in kindergarten - a huge step from preschool!

Good luck and let me know how it goes.

May 5, 2009

emofree @ 11:09 pm

thanks for the tips children need to be cared a lot and these are some really good tips for the first time parents to read.

June 16, 2009

Tami @ 9:34 am

Thank you for your thoughts. You are so correct in what you're saying here.

October 7, 2009

kathy @ 4:06 pm

this is a question to see if anyone can help me. my son is in kindergarten and loves it and up until now was fine. when he comes home he says he had a good day and tells me stuff that he did in school. he even likes to do homework. recently though, his teacher called me and said in the last 3 days he got (cried)over little things, like he needed his pencil sharpened, didn't know what page they were on and where to put his homework paper. she said it was like him and he never acted like this before and wanted to see if there could be a reason. i had no idea. he said nothing about this to me or his dad. i did notice at home in last few days that he was repeating some actions and i would say what are you doing and he would stop and say nothing. could all this be anxiety and what do i do. i talked with him and he doesn't know why he got upset, just confused he said. can you help me.

January 12, 2010

Trish @ 11:15 am

My 6 year old has been showing signs of anxiety and I am researching and trying to figure out how to help him. He does the "I have a belly ache (or headache, sore throat, ect) on a daily basis and has recently learned about going to the nurse and telling her your sick to go home early. i really hope I can help him, he is a sweet boy and I want him to be happy. Thanks for this information.

January 27, 2010

Leanne @ 12:01 pm

Hi Trish,
I am experiencing the exact same symptoms with my son that just turned 7.
I too have researched and have decided to take him to talk to a family counselor.
We connected with the school. The school is working with us. Each time my son tells his teacher he has a tummy ache the teacher finds ways to distract him. My son is a straight A student and appears to be well liked by his peers. I too want my son to be happy and enjoy being a 7 year old boy!
Good Luck
Good Luck.

May 21, 2010

Krissy @ 5:34 am

my 5 year old has had no anxiety all school year. It is now the last 15 days of school and she is vomiting almost every morning, reluctant to get dressed, and does not want to go. Ive asked if anything happened that I should know about, but she says no, she just doesnt want to go…is this normal?

August 4, 2010

Lori @ 8:03 am

Anxiety can be a very bad thing. It takes loving parents and teachers to help the child oversome his/her anxiety. Thanks for the helpful hints. Lori

October 7, 2010

matt @ 9:42 am

Some sound advice here. I think just spending time with your kids and talking through things really reaps benefits. If they have any problems they're more likely to come to you if you're open with them.

February 7, 2011

relaxing techniques for anxiety @ 2:53 pm

Thanks for a nice blog and topic. You provided a helpful information for children suffering from anxiety.

June 12, 2011

Steve @ 4:04 am

I really enjoyed your post. The 8 behaviors to look for that may indicate anxiety in a child is a good guide. Child anxiety can be very taxing on parents, so having good information really helps to reduce the stress of raising our kids.

September 21, 2011

Cassie @ 3:28 pm

we are having a few issues in the claas room at school with our girl who will be 6 in Feb, When it comes to story writting all she wants to do is just to draw, but when it comes to writting she will say I can't do it and make a big fuss and up set the rest of the kids in her class, She will then just scrubble in her book and on other pages as well.

She also has started to pick her lips untill the bleed or find some way to make her self bleed the inside of her arm.

At home she also has start to say that she don't feel too well when it's time to get ready for school and start to pick her lips. Or she just wants to stay at home.

When arrive at school she is very happy and plays with her friends. But it's just the class work that she's started to play up on.

Her teacher was think that she may just want the attenchen but after seeing your info I'm thinkg that there may be something diffrent.

With workiong with her teracher we are trying to find a way to help her out, Any help on how to help would be very helpfull. thanks

September 26, 2011

patti @ 12:19 pm

You may want to contact the school counselor at your daughter's school. School Counselors often have many resources; they can be the extra pair of eyes you want and need at this time. Most likely, the school counselor has experience dealing with young children with anxiety.

Tami @ 5:52 pm

Hi Cassie,

Just saw your post. I think what Patti suggested is a great idea. The school counselor or psychologist is a great resource. And it does sound like, from what you are saying, that there is more of an issue than just trying to get attention. Is the work possibly too hard for her, or maybe she needs some extra one on one support? The counselor should be able to help.

Good Luck,

February 8, 2012

Susan @ 10:13 am

Our 5 year old son started school in Sept,he started ok but since the last school break has started to become clingy and fill with up with tears. The teacher has to take him off me each morning. I have spoken to her openly about the situation and she gives him a job to do when he arrives, hes still gets upset though. He tells us he misses us and that its a long day, he doesnt like playtimes or noise and doesnt like the school hall floor which is parque wood. My older son has ASD.Do you think I am comparing him because there are a few traits but hes not the same. Dont want an unnecessary diagnosis but would like some support for his anxieties.Anyone got any ideas?

March 23, 2012

Child Anxiety Mom @ 9:35 am

That's a very helpful post, thanks. It seems it can sometimes be hard to determine if a child is anxious enough to warrant some sort of treatment, and your list of behaviors is a good starting point for parents who suspect that a kid is abnormally anxious.

April 13, 2012

Roelien @ 8:33 am

My 7 year daughter is happy to go to school in the mornings, but half an hour later they phone me saying she has a tummy ache. When I ask her what is wrong she tells me her tummy is sore. When asked what brought it on she will tell me she doesn't know. She says no one has been nasty, she is not scared of anything. She is a very good student. I also think she suffers from anxiety. We live in a very small town where there isn't any counselors at school. What can I try.

July 22, 2012

Tracy @ 3:52 pm

I would ask about friend relationships

January 12, 2013

Kelly @ 5:18 pm

I have a 4 year old who has been attending the same daycare since she was 6 weeks old. Lately she has been showing signs of anxiety when there is a change in the routine or if she doesn't know something. I also suffer from GAD (generalized anxiety disorder). She begins to talk excessivly and quickly - to where she almost stutters. I try to validate her feelings and try to get her to slow down, but it is very difficult. She also has some social problems. I know she knows what she is feeling, but she has a hard time using her words when she gets even a little frustrated. She can't sit still at all, meal times are a trial because she won't sit and eat, and if I take her food away after EVERYONE else has finished, she comes back to eat and has a melt down since her food is taken away. I'm trying to teach her that her actions have consequences, but it is very hard. Any suggestions from anyone?

January 15, 2013

Annette @ 7:46 am

My 5-year-old has been acting out since going back to school after winter break. She's in K4 & had a hard time at the beginning of the school year. She was never in day care, so this was the first time in that type of setting. She was whiney for the first 3 wks of school, but then came around. She would be very clingy if I came to volunteer in the class and would cry when I wasn't with her.

After winter break, the teacher rearranged the seats, so my daughter Sat in a new area. This was enough to cause extreme anxiety. The teacher moved her seat back, thinking it would help. For the past 2 wks, she cries and screams when I leave in the morning. She says she's scared to be there without me, she doesn't like school. She even tries to run after me when I leave. I feel awful. I'm wondering if I made a bad decision by putting her in K4. Maybe she's not ready. I feel powerless and clueless. I don't know if this is normal…..

February 1, 2013

elaine @ 2:26 am

please can anybody help my son is 6 years old right from being young he doesnt cope with crowds of people or if anybody speaks to him he goes into melt down throws his hiself onto the floor crying when he goes to school and we are waiting for school to start he cant talk to any of his friends he cant stand in the line with the other children and go in with them so i take him in if the cloakroom is busy he goes into melt down and runs out of there as soon as he gets into class he talks to his friends and has a lovely day when he comes out after school he clams up up again and cant talk to his class mates he plays up every morning cries scream cus he dosent want to go please if anybody has simular or can help me to help him thanks

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