Mental health in children and teenagers
Stress and anxiety in your child or teenager
Much like adults, children and teenagers can experience worries, stress, or anxiety. These reactions are normal and can even help them cope with certain situations. However, care must be taken to ensure that anxiety does not take up too much space and that it does not adversely affect their well-being or health.
Experiencing intense anxiety can cause children or teenagers certain problems, including difficulties sleeping and eating, relationship problems or difficulties in accomplishing daily activities.
Factors related to anxiety
Children can feel anxious for various reasons. Anxiety in children can be related to:
Fears and concerns that are normal at the child’s stage of development
All children have fears at one point or another. Fears can be normal depending on the child’s developmental stage.
Young children have difficulty understanding their fears and concerns. The fact that they do not always understand the situation and the information they are given or that they interpret it according to their level of development can cause them to experience stress and trigger various reactions. Hence the reason they sometimes react exaggeratedly when they are scared. As an adult, you should try to understand how your child feels in order to help them express themselves. If they express their fears and concerns, it will be easier for your child to overcome them.
Examples of normal fears
Around 7-8 months, babies are afraid of strangers and cry when they do not see their parents. They experience separation anxiety, also known as fear of separation.
Between 2 and 5 years of age, children begin to have nightmares and to experience all sorts of fears, including the fear of monsters and imaginary creatures or the fear of the dark.
After 5 years of age, fears and concerns have to do with surroundings and the real world. The more the child grows, the more their fears become more like those of adults. They can experience the following:
- Fears of specific things, such as fear of thieves, fire, animals, accidents, war, natural disasters, illness or death
- Social fears, such as fear of being made fun of by other kids at school or fear of public speaking
In adolescence, it is normal to have concerns about topics such as friendships, the fear of being excluded from the group or experiencing failures. It is a stressful period during which identity, a social network and integration into society develop. It is also normal to have fears about the future.
In some cases, anxiety can develop into an anxiety disorder.
The most common types of anxiety disorders in adolescence are:
Family, school and social circumstances that can cause anxiety
Family, school or social circumstances can make a child or a teenager feel anxious, such as:
- The parents’ breakup
- A moving
- The change of school or daycare (the transition from primary to secondary school can be particularly stressful)
- School deadlines and expectations
- An important upcoming event, such as an exam or sports competition
- A major current event the child comes across in various media
- The death of a loved one
- Family conflicts
- Some parenting practices such as overprotection, parental control or repeated criticism
They may also feel and react to their parents’ stress and anxiety.
The individual characteristics
A child or a teenager who has a more withdrawn or introverted temperament (they are shy with strangers and avoid unknown things and situations) can show more signs associated with anxiety such self-consciousness, shyness, a tendency to avoid social situations or being afraid of new things.
Anxiety can also be influenced by heredity. A child or a teenager who has a parent or grandparent with an anxiety problem is more likely to develop one too.
Recognizing signs and symptoms of anxiety
Reactions to stress vary from child to child. They can be influenced by their age, their level of development, their temperament, their personality or the reactions of family and friends.
Young children's reactions to stress may be different, since they have not necessarily learned the vocabulary to express what they understand and feel about the situation. They often react more to the stress experienced by the parent. In this sense, the reactions of young children tend to be reflected in their behaviour and during daily activities such as meals, bedtime, bath time, games, etc.
The most common signs and symptoms of anxiety in children are the following:
- Sleeping difficulties (difficulty falling asleep, interrupted or agitated sleep)
- Tendency to tire quickly
- Changes in appetite
- Avoiding certain situations, such as refusing to go to daycare, attend school or participate in sports or social activities
- Difficulty making friends
- Tendency to stay alone
- Difficulty speaking in front of other people
- Certain physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, vomiting and muscle tension or headaches
- Crying and tantrums
- Tendency to cling to their parent or to withdraw and stop speaking)
- Tendency to ask a lot of questions;
- Regression (wetting the bed, for example)
- Concentration or memory difficulties
Anxiety in children related to social activities can occur in the presence of other children or adults.
Teenagers have their own way of expressing what they are experiencing. They may act as if they are invulnerable and nothing affects them. However, despite appearances, they may feel affected and vulnerable.
In addition to the signs and symptoms mentioned for children, other manifestations of stress and anxiety are possible in teenagers. For example, they may:
- Lose interest in seeing their friends, participating in school and leisure activities, or working
- Not recognize or minimize the consequences of the situation
- Have physical symptoms, for example: rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, tremors, dizziness, clammy hands
- Have anxious thoughts: worries, doubts, fears or obsessive thoughts, for example
- Have panic attacks
- Start or increase alcohol or drug use
- Overuse screens, spend a lot of time playing video games or on social media and experience distress when screen time is limited
- Show aggressiveness, irritability or opposition
When to consult
If your child has signs or symptoms of anxiety that worry you, resources are available where you can get information, help and support. Consult the page Mental health help and support resources by need.
However, consult a doctor or another healthcare professional (including a professional at the school or educational institution your child goes to) if you experience one of the following situations frequently or for a long time:
- Your child is experiencing distress
- Your child has difficulty accomplishing daily activities due to high anxiety
- Your child has learning difficulties related to their anxiety
- Your child’s condition affects family life
Care and services that are recognized as effective are available to help your child overcome their fears and anxieties. Your collaboration and involvement will be key to success. You might, for instance, have to work with the school staff.
A healthcare professional will be able to assess whether your child has an anxiety disorder or another health problem with similar symptoms. To clarify the nature of your child's difficulties, they may need to assess their health. They will then propose a treatment plan tailored to their needs.
Distress and suffering can be very severe for a child or teenager who suffers from anxiety. If you are concerned that your child is thinking about suicide and are afraid for their safety, consult the page Recognizing signs of distress and preventing suicide. You will find more information on the help and resources available there.
What to do to prevent or reduce anxiety
As a parent, you should help prevent or reduce your child’s anxiety.
Here are several ways to help your child manage their anxiety:
- Be patient, comfort them with words they understand and with affectionate gestures. Help with translating feelings into words and reassure them.
- Ask questions and listen. Above all, your child is in need of expressing their fears. Do not try to find solutions to them at any cost.
- Explain the difficult situation in simple terms.
- If they say they are scared, do not make fun of them. Tell them that it is normal to be afraid and that it happens to you too.
- Children sometimes experience fear or have difficulty adapting to new situations. Help your child prepare for these situations or to express themselves through games (figurines, stuffed animals, drawings, etc.) or reassuring stories.
- Encourage your child to develop and maintain relationships with other people, to participate in group activities.
- Help your child develop their social and problem-solving skills.
- Increase your child’s self-esteem by highlighting their strengths, successes and efforts.
- Congratulate your child when their fear is overcome. Remind them of the fears they have overcome. This will encourage them to continue managing their fears.
- Do not allow your child to avoid every situation that causes them anxiety. Be supportive, tell them you are there for them and give them the time they need to gradually overcome their fear at their pace.
- Confront troubling situations one at a time in a progressive manner.
- Establish routines in order to preserve their sense of security and reassure them.
- Adopt predictable, supportive and consistent parenting practices .
Your child experiences events through your eyes. They need to be reassured, to know that they can count on you and to feel that you are protecting them. In order for you to be able to stay calm, it is important that you take care of yourself. You can help prevent your anxiety and your child’s anxiety by following advice for maintaining good mental health.
Here are several ways to help your teen manage their anxiety:
- Go to them.
- Be frank, give accurate information, in a caring way, if they ask you questions about the situation or what you think about it and how it makes you feel.
- Check what they understand about the situation and how it makes them feel and correct the misperceptions they have as much as possible.
- Do not minimize the situation.
- Avoid moralizing.
- Admit that you do not necessarily have all the answers to their questions.
- Tell them that you will find out and come back with the answers, if necessary.
Offer to help them seek help, if they want to. You can also encourage them to:
- Reduce their consumption of stimulants (soft drinks or energy drinks, coffee, tea, etc.). Caffeine can cause anxiety
- Get enough sleep so that they can cope with the challenges of the day better
- Move or do physical activity every day
- Learn to recognize their reactions to anxiety
- Identify the source of their emotions and when they occur
- Discuss their difficulties and emotions with one or more people they trust
- Find ways to change their focus and increase their well-being, identify what makes them feel good
- Learn and use breathing or relaxation techniques
- Establish and maintain a routine
- Focus on the present moment and what can be controlled
- Reduce or avoid alcohol or drug use
Other tips for promoting good mental health are available. Invite your child to follow them.
Help and resources
To find information and support resources or to obtain care or services concerning your child’s symptoms of anxiety, consult the page Finding a mental health help and support resources.
Last update: November 24, 2023