Anxiety in young children

We've been hearing more and more about anxiety, notably in young children. How do kids express their anxiety, and what can be done to help them overcome it?


Understanding anxiety

It’s normal for a young child to feel anxious when faced with a new situation or change. However, some children are more anxious than others—here’s why.

By Julie Leduc

It’s normal for a young child to feel anxious when faced with a new situation or change. However, some children are more anxious than others—here’s why.

Anxiety is an intense emotional reaction triggered by stress or fear. “It’s a fear overreaction,” explains psychoeducator Suzie Chiasson-Renaud. “The anxiety is felt even if the danger isn’t real. It can be triggered by only our thoughts, because we believe that something bad will happen.” For example, if a child jumps or cries out when they see a big dog, they’re experiencing fear. But if they don’t want to go to the park because they’re afraid they might see a dog, that’s anxiety.

Fear and worry are normal emotions that children feel during their development. “Occasional anxiety is perfectly normal in children,” says Chiasson-Renaud. “They’re exposed to so many new situations and unknowns. What’s more, their brains aren’t developed enough to manage their emotions.” During childhood, anxiety is often transitory. As children get older and adapt to new situations, their anxiety generally dissipates.

What causes anxiety?

While all children can experience anxiety, some are more anxious by nature. Here are a few factors that explain why one child might feel more anxious than others.

  • Temperament – A shy, fearful child might be more prone to anxiety.
  • Genetics – “Very often, a child who shows signs of anxiety has at least one anxious parent,” says psychologist Tina Montreuil, director of the Childhood Anxiety and Regulation of Emotions (C.A.R.E.) Research Group at McGill. Genetics play a role, but anxiety can also be passed down to a child through a parent’s actions, such as worrying too much or being overprotective.
  • An event that brings significant change to a child’s life, such as a new baby or a parental separation – When this type of event occurs, parents may be under stress and less available for their little one. For example, four-year-old Marion started showing signs of anxiety after her little brother, Arnaud, was born. “Arnaud was hospitalized twice after his birth, so we often had to leave Marion with a babysitter,” says father Carl Ducharme. “She started to feel anxious at daycare and in the middle of the night—whenever she wasn’t with us.”
  • A lack of routine and rules – Children need clear, concrete rules to feel safe. Otherwise, they don’t know what to expect, which can create anxiety.
  • A hectic family schedule – When young children don’t have enough quality time with their parents, they can become anxious. These bonding moments make them feel safe, calm, comforted, and emotionally balanced.
  • High parental expectations – Children may become anxious because they’re afraid of making mistakes and disappointing their parents.

How do I know if my child is anxious?

“When my son is feeling anxious, he becomes a real fireball,” says Jolianne Korak. Her son Alexis is three and a half. “He has so much energy to burn. He might run down the street, yell, throw things, or hit me.”

Since small children don’t have the words to express how they’re feeling, their anxiety manifests through their behaviour. Some, like Alexis, become agitated and aggressive. Temper tantrums, crying, confrontational behaviour, and irritability are other signs of anxiety. “Sometimes, anxiety is mistaken for hyperactivity because anxious children can have difficulty controlling themselves,” says Dr. Montreuil. “For example, they might have trouble sitting still or act aggressively during recess.”

According to Dr. Montreuil, the opposite is also possible. “Shy children might not have any external reaction at all when they’re anxious.” They can freeze up, fall silent, avoid others, and show no emotion when they’re with strangers or in public. Six-year-old Elyam is one such child. “In new situations, he gets overwhelmed and won’t move for several minutes,” says his mother, Mira Dana.

Stomach aches, headaches, and nausea are other signs of anxiety in children. “Sleep problems are also common in anxious children,” says Marie-Ève Mongrain, a psychoeducator at the Vaudreuil-Dorion CLSC. “They can’t sleep without their parents, have trouble falling asleep, and wake up in the night.” For about a year, that’s exactly what Marion’s parents went through. “Almost every night, our daughter would wake up to check that we hadn’t gone back to the hospital,” says her father, Carl.

Helping an anxious child

Thankfully, there are many ways to alleviate your child’s anxiety. It’s a good idea to act early, before their fears and worries grow.

Thankfully, there are many ways to alleviate your child’s anxiety. It’s a good idea to act early, before their fears and worries grow.

Adopting a warm, calm, reassuring, and consistent attitude with your child helps them feel safe and reduces their anxiety.

Other ways to help your child when they’re anxious

  • Give them transitional objects to ease them through separations. “Marion used to cry a lot when I dropped her off at daycare, so I started tying her hair with a special bow every day,” says her mother, Marie-Pier Clément. “I wore an identical bow and told Marion that it made me think of her all day long. We also left family photographs at her daycare. Marion could look at them whenever she was feeling anxious. At bedtime, I would give her an item of my clothing. If she woke up in the night, she could snuggle it and feel like I was with her.”
  • Establish a routine. Knowing how the day will unfold is reassuring for a young child. Marion’s dad, Carl, has seen the benefits of routine first-hand: “When we come home, we have a snack, talk about our day, and play together. I’m available for Marion, and she likes this routine.” In these moments, Marion is also learning to express her feelings—the good and the bad. When children share their emotions instead of bottling them up, they feel less anxious.
How common is anxiety in young children?
“Kids under the age of five don’t have many words to verbalize their feelings, so it’s hard to say,” says psychoeducator Suzie Chiasson-Renaud. What’s more, the numbers vary from one study to another. Researchers estimate that about 10 percent of preschool children are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, meaning that their anxiety is very intense, difficult to control, and interfering with their daily activities.
However, according to the experts we spoke with for this article, the actual percentage of children with anxiety—diagnosed or otherwise—is actually much higher. In their line of work, they’ve noticed a significant demand for services to support anxious kids. A family’s lifestyle can be overwhelming for young children and increase their stress and anxiety. “Often, both parents work, so their kids spend a lot of time at daycare,” says psychoeducator Marie-Ève Mongrain. “The whole family has a packed schedule.”
Keep in mind that a certain level of anxiety is normal in children. “Don’t panic if your little one is experiencing anxiety,” says psychologist Tina Montreuil. “The important thing is to be aware so that you can help them overcome their fears and manage their emotions.”
  • Stay calm. “Children with anxiety experience very intense emotions,” says Dr. Montreuil. They often cry or have tantrums because they’re confused and afraid of what’s happening inside them. If their parents get upset, they’ll only feel more afraid.” Instead, stay calm and reassure your child with a smile. “Let them know that you’re not upset and that what they’re feeling is normal,” suggests Dr. Montreuil. Then you can say, “I’m right here. I know you’re upset. When you feel ready, come see me and I’ll help you.”
  • Help them verbalize their emotions. For example, you can say, “I can feel your heart beating very fast.” Ask questions to find out what’s bothering your child or triggering their anxiety. When you help your child put their emotions into words, they feel understood, and this may calm them down. Physical contact, like a kiss or a hug, is another great way to comfort your child.
  • Follow their pace. Don’t push your little one. Give them enough time to overcome their fears and adapt to the situation. “Whenever we go somewhere new, Elyam is very shy,” says his mother, Mira Dana. “We don’t put any pressure on him. We give him space and time to get used to his new surroundings.”
  • Help them gradually face their fears. Instead of avoiding situations that make your child anxious, try to gradually expose them to their fears while offering support and guidance. Eventually, they will feel capable of facing these scary situations alone. “If your child is afraid of dogs, you can start by reading them books about dogs,” suggests psychoeducator Suzie Chiasson-Renaud. “Then, try watching a movie that features a dog or visiting a pet store. If you know a dog owner, ask them if your child can pet their dog. Just make sure your child is no longer feeling anxious before moving on to a new step.”
  • If possible, simplify your schedule. Slow down, de-stress, and spend more time with your family. All of these actions will help decrease your child’s anxiety.
  • Teach your child breathing exercises. When your child is calm, try teaching them a breathing exercise through play. For example, tell them to slowly breathe in and out with their hands on their stomach to feel it inflate and deflate like a balloon.
  • Make sure your child is getting enough exercise. Running, jumping, dancing, singing, and laughing are all excellent ways for your child to release tension and anxiety.
  • Congratulate your little one when they manage to face their fears.
When should you speak with an expert?
If you need help managing your own anxiety, or the anxiety of your child, contact one of the following support services:
  • Your local CLSC
  • Info-Social (811), a free and confidential phone consultation service
  • Your work’s employee assistance program, if applicable
However, if your child’s anxiety is interfering with their daily life and is not improving despite your best efforts, we recommend consulting an early childhood specialist (e.g., a pediatrician, child psychologist, psychoeducator, or social worker).

What to avoid

Don’t be overprotective. Doing everything for your child, or shielding them from new experiences because you’re afraid they might get hurt or make a mistake, will only feed their anxiety. They’ll start to think the world is dangerous and that they need you to protect them.

It’s also important not to avoid situations that make your child anxious. According to Dr. Montreuil, parents need to accept that their children will sometimes experience negative emotions. Show your child that you understand their emotions and help them learn to overcome their fears. “These experiences build up a child’s resistance to anxiety,” says Dr. Montreuil. For example, they eventually learn that they can feel okay without their parents around.” They become more confident and independent, which in turn decreases their anxiety.

Take care of your own anxiety

If you’re an anxious person, your emotions will have a direct impact on your child. “As soon as I get anxious, my son starts to act out,” says Jolianne Korak. “When that happens, I leave the room and take a few deep breaths. I try to focus on the present instead of worrying about the future.” According to Dr. Montreuil, it’s crucial for parents to manage their anxiety. “They need to find coping strategies,” she says. “If they can’t do it on their own, they might find it helpful to speak with a professional. Parents need to take care of themselves before they can take care of their children.”


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, September 2019
Research and copywriting: Julie Leduc
Scientific review: Dr. Benoît Hammarrenger, neuropsychologist


Photos : (in order) Maxim Morin, GettyImages/nd3000, Maxim Morin, Maxim Morin, GettyImages/Fatcamera et romrodinka