Support for children aged 0-25 with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

Is my child a worrier? - a guide for 0-5 year olds

Just like adults, children and young people feel worried at times.

But if a child's worries are starting to affect their well-being, they may need some help to overcome it.

What makes children worry?

Some children tend to feel worried about different things at different ages. Many of these worries are a normal part of growing up.

From about eight months to three years, it can be common for young children to feel worried when separated from their parents or carers. Children can become clingy and cry. This is a normal stage in children's development and tends to ease off at around age two to three when they understand that the parent or carer will always come back and collect them.

Pre-school children can develop certain worries around common fears like animals, insects, storms and the dark. These fears will usually go away gradually on their own. However, be mindful these can be learnt behaviours from noticing the reactions from the people around them.

Throughout a child's life there will be other times when they worry. For example, starting playgroup or moving onto primary school. Some children may feel shy in social situations and may need a little extra support with this. This is entirely normal.

What are normal signs of worrying?

If young children are over worrying, they cannot always understand or express what they are feeling.

Signs to look out for:

  • they may become irritable, tearful or clingy
  • difficulty sleeping and or waking in the night
  • they may start wetting the bed (or themselves) when previously dry
  • bad dreams
  • nail-biting
  • reduced appetite.

Take note as your child's parent/carer you know them best. If there are any concerns, please contact your Health Visitor.

When is over worrying a problem for children?

Worrying becomes a problem for children when it starts to get in the way of their day-to-day life.

When over worrying happens it can affect children’s wellbeing. It might be noticed a child’s behaviour has changed, and may start to avoid experiences they previously enjoyed.

Why do children worry?

Some children are more prone to worries than others, again this is completely normal.

Children often find change difficult and may become worried following a house move or when starting a new setting or activity. This is a totally natural reaction.

However, children who have had a distressing experience, such as a significant change in the home environment, for example separation and loss, they may suffer with anxiety afterwards. Equally, family arguments and conflict can also leave children feeling insecure and anxious. Please ask for help if the child is; or at risk of suffering from this.

What can you do to help an over worried child?

If a child is over worrying, there is plenty you can do to help.

First and foremost it is important to be calm, reassure the child and listen. Children can express themselves through play so be observant and spend quality time with them.

Their worry may be displayed through play, giving a perfect opportunity to notice and reassure the child. If the child is old enough to talk about their worry, let them know you understand how they feel and how they can overcome this. Further support can be gained from contacting your Health Visitor.

Other ways to support children

Children of all ages find routines reassuring so try to stick to regular daily routines where possible. This enables the child to feel safe whilst they are going through change.

If a child is worried because of distressing events, such as a bereavement or separation, see if you can find books or films that will help them understand their feelings.

If a change, such as a house move is coming up, prepare the child by talking to them in advance about what is going to happen and why. Wherever possible, involve the child in this process to help them feel less worried of the unknown and understand the changes. Also inform the childcare provider who can offer support with talking about the process.

Try not to become worried or overprotective – rather than doing things for the child or helping them to avoid anxiety-provoking situations, encourage the child to find ways to manage them.

Practice simple relaxation techniques with the child, such as taking three deep slow breaths, breathing in for a count of three and out for a count of three. Distraction can be helpful for young children, for example if they are worried about going to nursery, play games on the way there, such as seeing who can spot the most red cars. Turning an old tissue box into a "worry" box can also help. Ask the child to write or draw their worries and post them into the box and at the end of the day or week to sort through the box together.

How can parents and practitioners get help?

If the child's worrying persists and is interfering or has the potential to interfere with everyday life, it is a good idea to seek help.

A visit to the GP or Health Visitor is a good place to start. If the child's anxiety is affecting their early education, it's a good idea to talk to the childcare provider/SENCO as well.

You can also get help and advice around children's mental health from Young Minds' free parent helpline.

More information can be found on anxiety in children on the NHS website.