How To Spot The Common Signs Of Anxiety In Children

How To Spot The Common Signs Of Anxiety In Children

Anxiety is a natural and often healthy response to challenging or uncertain situations. However, when it becomes excessive and interferes with a child’s life, it can evolve into a more serious issue. There are many circumstances or natural factors that can contribute to children facing anxiety. Parents, caregivers, and educators play a crucial role in recognising the common signs of anxiety in children.

Recognising the signs early on is essential for providing the necessary support and intervention to help children manage their emotions and thrive.

Understanding childhood anxiety

It is common for child psychologists in Singapore to meet with parents concerned about their child's anxiety levels. Childhood anxiety is more common than one might think. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 31.9% of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives (National Institute of Mental Health, n.d.).

Childhood anxiety refers to an excessive and persistent sense of worry, fear, or unease that goes beyond the typical fears and concerns associated with growing up. While some level of anxiety is a normal part of development, it becomes problematic when it disrupts a child’s ability to function and enjoy their everyday activities. Here, it is important to understand the distinction between age-appropriate anxiety, and signs that may indicate a more significant issue.

Common signs of anxiety in children

1. Emotional signs

Children experiencing anxiety may exhibit heightened worry or fear about various situations, such as school, social interactions, or performance. Frequent emotional outbursts, tearfulness, and irritability can also be indicators of underlying anxiety.

2. Behavioural signs

Anxious children often go to great lengths to avoid situations that trigger their fears. Avoidance behaviour can manifest as reluctance or refusal to participate in activities they once enjoyed and distancing themselves from their closest friends (Cherry, 2022). Additionally, clinging to parents or caregivers for reassurance and difficulty separating from them are common signs. Restlessness, fidgeting, and an inability to stay still may also be observed.

3. Physical signs

Physical symptoms such as recurrent headaches or stomach aches, even in the absence of an identifiable medical cause, can be attributed to anxiety. Muscle tension, trembling, and an increased heart rate are physical manifestations of heightened stress. It is also common for children with anxiety to experience panic attacks, rapid breathing, and constantly feeling sick.

It is important to note that children may not be able to verbally communicate symptoms like muscle tension or panic attacks. Therefore, adults should monitor changes in behaviour, such as withdrawal or irritability, along with physical complaints such as unexplained headaches or stomach aches. Disrupted sleep patterns, academic decline, school avoidance, and indirect expressions of worry through play and communication are also important cues to consider, underlining the significance of fostering open conversations with your child about emotions and providing a supportive environment.

4. Cognitive signs

Anxious children often engage in negative self-talk, doubting their abilities and worrying excessively about potential negative outcomes. Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, and an inclination toward expecting the worst are cognitive indicators of anxiety.

Factors contributing to childhood anxiety

There are many factors that could contribute to childhood anxiety. However, it is important to remember that such factors are often multifaceted. While genetics, family dynamics, and temperament play roles, external influences like school stress and media exposure can also contribute to feelings of anxiety. Understanding how these factors play a role in anxiety, would allow for more effective support and intervention.

Let us take a look at some of these common factors that might contribute to childhood anxiety:

1. Genetic factors

Genetic factors play a significant role in the development of anxiety disorders. For example, there is an approximately 47% chance of children inheriting social phobia from parents (Skre et al., 2000). Social phobia is the intense fear of social situations and scrutiny by others, leading to avoidance and distress. Genetic predispositions interact with the environment, affecting a child's susceptibility to anxiety disorders.

2. Environmental factors

Environmental factors contribute a significant part in the development of anxiety. Factors such as age, gender, temperament, culture, major life transitions, family dynamics and parental pressure can affect a child’s vulnerability. Recognising the influence of these factors on a child’s well-being would facilitate more tailored intervention to foster healthier emotional development and resilience in children.

3. Cognitive factors

Children's thought patterns and cognitive processes play a crucial role in the development and maintenance of anxiety. Negative thought patterns, such as excessive worrying, catastrophic thinking, and distorted perceptions of danger, can amplify feelings of anxiety. Imagine a situation where a child's parent is running late to pick them up from school. In such cases, negative thought patterns such as catastrophic thinking might come into play. The child might begin to imagine alarming scenarios such as accidents or kidnappings. However, the actual reason for the parent's delay could be as simple as being stuck in traffic. Although these feelings are often unrealistic, they can still significantly impact a child’s behaviour, emotion and worldview (Garey, 2023).

Steps to address childhood anxiety

● Open communication

Encourage open and non-judgmental communication with your child. Let them know that it's okay to talk about their worries and fears. Listen actively and validate their feelings.

● Provide reassurance

Reassure your child that their feelings are valid and that you are there to support them. Help them understand that anxiety is a normal response, but there are strategies to manage it.

● Teach relaxation techniques

Introduce relaxation techniques suitable for children such as bubble breaths, where they breathe in slowly through the nose and out through pursed lips as if blowing bubbles, or counting breaths to divert their focus. You can also encourage stretching with a rainbow stretch where they stretch their arms overhead and touch their toes, moving like a rainbow. These relaxation techniques can help children manage their anxiety symptoms.

● Set realistic expectations

Help your child set realistic goals and expectations for themselves. For example, instead of suddenly aiming for straight A’s, encourage your child to set a goal of improving by one grade at a time in a specific subject. If they are pursuing a creative hobby like playing a musical instrument, instead of aiming to play complex pieces perfectly within a short period, suggest that they focus on gradually improving their skills. Help them recognise that not everyone is perfect. People do make mistakes, and that it is a part of learning and growing.

● Seek professional help

If your child's anxiety is significantly causing them distress or impacting their daily life, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective in treating childhood anxiety by helping them identify their negative thoughts and learn coping strategies.

● Promote healthy lifestyle habits

Ensure your child is getting enough sleep, maintaining a balanced diet, and engaging in regular physical activity. These factors can positively impact their overall well-being and help manage anxiety.


If you observe your child displaying signs of anxiety as mentioned above, offering them essential support and resources is important. It might be helpful to seek professional guidance, including psychotherapy in Singapore, where trained therapists would be able to ensure that your child receives the appropriate interventions and strategies to help them manage their anxiety effectively.


National Institute of Mental Health (n.d.) Any Anxiety Disorder.

Cherry, K. (2022). How to Help a Child With Anxiety.

Skre, I., Onstad, S., Torgersen, S., Philos, D. R., Lygren, S., & Kringlen, E. (2000). The heritability of common phobic fear: a twin study of a clinical sample. Journal of anxiety disorders, 14(6), 549–562.

Garey, J. (2023). How to Change Negative Thinking Patterns.