Children's fears and anxiety

Most children develop fears at some stage. Common fears include the dark, loud noises, large animals, getting lost, monsters and sleeping alone. Sometimes, some children become really scared that they will lose one of their parents through illness or death.

Anxiety is also a normal part of children’s emotional development. For children, it can be experienced as excessive fear and worry. Anxiety may result from children facing a lot of change in their life. For example, children may feel anxious when they move to a new home, start a new school, or become involved in a new activity. Anxiety can arise from children not understanding what is happening to them or their loved ones.

Children’s anxiety can show itself through a range of behaviour such as fighting with siblings or friends, tantrums, sleep disturbance, crying a lot, being clingy or defiance. The cause of children’s behaviour can be difficult to understand at times. Staying in touch with what is happening to your children will help you to read the signs that they may be feeling anxious.

Responding to your child’s fears and anxiety

Don’t make fun of children’s fears or worries. Even though the fears may seem silly and irrational, they are very serious and real to your child. Try not to get frustrated and angry.

Listen to your child’s fears. Acknowledge them and let your child know that you are willing to help.

Allow children time to overcome their fears. It may take weeks, months or even longer.

Talking with children about fears and worries can make them seem less overwhelming.

Provide simple, rational explanations to help allay your child’s concerns.

Talk to your child about things that worried you and how you have overcome them.

Avoid telling children that there is nothing to be afraid of. This message can convey that you don’t understand how they are feeling.

Help children to think about would make them feel less worried. For example if your child’s fears relate to the dark or night times, talk about night lights, using toys to act as ‘protectors’ and agree on and stick to routines about bedtime.

Children often cannot explain anxiety. They may find it hard to talk about their fears and worries. Help children manage their fears through play. For example, playing doctors may help a child overcome a fear of going to the doctor.

Minimise fears by monitoring what children are watching on television. Avoid exposing them to inappropriate material that they may find worrying.

Prepare children for situations that you know will cause them to feel anxious. Talk about who will be there, what will happen, and who the child can go to if they are worried. For example, if starting a new school, regularly take the child to the school in the lead up to the first day, spend time in the playground on weekends, locate where her classroom is, where the toilets are and where you will meet after school.

A child’s fears tend to lessen if they feel they have some control over a situation. Don’t force children to confront deeply held fears head on. Help to desensitize them to the source of their fear. For example if your child is fearful of large dogs, slowly introduce them to dogs in a safe and contained way by showing pictures of dogs in a book, playing with a toy dog, seeing dogs in a pet shop and when ready encouraging the child to pat a small, friendly dog.

Praise and acknowledge children’s efforts to confront their fears and anxieties.

Avoid letting children know you are frightened or worried as well as this may increase their fear. Sometimes your anxiety can be greater than your child’s. Children can easily pick up on your anxiety. Think about how you can manage our own anxiety.

When to seek professional advice

Whilst anxiety is extremely common in children, parents should seek professional advice when the anxiety begins to impact on their healthy development. If your child’s fears or anxieties are interfering with their normal daily activities and are getting worse over months rather than better, seek advice from your GP, a paediatrician or school counsellor.