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Childhood anxieties and fears

4-minute read

All children have anxiety or fear about real and imaginary things. Children may feel afraid even if there is no immediate threat to their safety or wellbeing.

Passing anxieties and fears are normal in children.

Fear triggers changes in children’s bodies and make them want to escape from situations, fast. Their hearts beat quickly, they may begin to perspire and feel 'butterflies' in their stomachs.

A little bit of anxiety can actually help people stay alert and focused. Having fears or anxieties about certain things can also be helpful because it makes children behave in safer ways. For example, a child with a fear of fire would avoid playing with matches.

However, many adults are tormented by fears that stem from childhood experiences. An adult's fear of public speaking may be the result of embarrassment experienced in front of peers many years before.

Some children develop phobias — a very strong fear of something specific, such as spiders or meeting new people – which can interfere with their everyday lives.

It's important for parents to recognise and identify the signs and symptoms of children’s anxieties and to find ways of helping them overcome these fears. Seek professional help if necessary.

Causes of anxiety at different ages

The nature of anxieties and fears change as children grow and develop. Typical childhood fears change with age. They include fear of strangers, heights, darkness, animals, blood, insects and being left alone. Children often learn to fear a specific object or situation after having an unpleasant experience, such as a dog bite or an accident.

Separation anxiety is common when young children are starting daycare or school, whereas adolescents may experience anxiety related to social acceptance and academic achievement.

Here are examples of the kind of anxiety children may experience at different ages:

  • Babies may experience stranger anxiety, clinging to parents when confronted by new people they don't recognise.
  • Toddlers may experience separation anxiety, becoming distressed and even throw tantrums when one or both parents or caregivers leave.
  • Preschoolers may fear things like being in the dark.
  • School-age children may have anxiety about things that aren't based in reality, such as fears of monsters and ghosts. They may also have fears that reflect real circumstances that may happen to them, such as bodily injury and natural disaster

As children grow, one fear may disappear or replace another. For example, a child who couldn't sleep with the light off at age 5 may enjoy a ghost story at a slumber party years later. And some fears may extend only to one particular kind of stimulus. In other words, a child may ask to pet a lion at the zoo but wouldn't dream of going near the neighbour's dog.

Some children develop generalised anxiety, where they worry about a lot of things. This commonly happens when they start school and they may feel the need to be perfectionists, worry about tests, be afraid to ask questions in class and feel very stressed.

Signs of anxiety

Signs that your child is anxious about something may include:

  • becoming clingy, impulsive or distracted
  • needing reassurance
  • panic or tantrums when separated from parents
  • problems sleeping or nightmares
  • faster heart rate and breathing
  • nausea
  • headaches
  • stomach aches

Apart from these signs, parents can usually tell when their child is feeling excessively uneasy about something. Lending a sympathetic ear is always helpful, and sometimes just talking about the fear can help a child move beyond it.

If children’s anxieties last a long time, it can take a toll on their sense of wellbeing and interfere with their daily life. For example, a child who has a fear of being rejected can fail to learn important social skills, causing social isolation. If left untreated, some extreme childhood anxieties may develop into anxiety disorders.

So it is important to be aware of whether your child has normal, passing anxieties or a severe anxiety or phobia that may disrupt their life. You should seek professional help from a doctor or child psychologist if you are concerned.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2019

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The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

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