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Anxiety is a common mental health condition can affect both adults and children. Here we explain what it is and how to seek help.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness or fear that is often a normal reaction to perceived danger. Children, like adults, can suffer from various forms of anxiety disorders. It can become a problem when these feelings are constant, overwhelming or disproportionate to the situation, affecting daily life and well-being.

Anxiety can manifest itself through both physical and psychological symptoms, including heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, upset stomach, difficulty concentrating, irritability and sleep problems. There are different types of anxiety disorders, such as generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), each with their specific characteristics and symptoms.

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What causes anxiety in children?

Children can develop anxiety for many different reasons, often involving a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors. Here are some of the most common reasons why children may experience anxiety:

Biological factors

  • Genetics: Like other mental health conditions, anxiety can have a genetic component. Children of parents with anxiety disorders are at a higher risk of developing anxiety themselves.
  • Brain chemistry: Imbalances in brain neurotransmitters can affect a person’s emotions and cause anxiety.

Psychological factors

  • Temperament: Children with a naturally cautious or sensitive temperament may be more likely to develop anxiety.
  • Negative thinking patterns: Children who tend to interpret situations as threatening or focus on what could go wrong may be more likely to experience anxiety.

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Environmental factors

  • Stress at home or school: Family conflicts, divorce, bullying at school or high expectations can be stressful and contribute to anxiety.
  • Traumatic events: Experiences of loss, abuse, accidents or other traumatic events can trigger anxiety disorders.
  • Life changes: Even positive changes, such as starting a new school or moving to a new home, can be stressful and cause anxiety in some children.

Learned behaviours

  • Model learning: Children can learn anxiety behaviours by observing and imitating parents or other important adults in their lives who display anxiety-related behaviors.

Social and cultural factors

  • Social pressure: Peer pressure and social media can increase children’s concerns about fitting in or living up to certain ideals.
  • Cultural expectations: Cultural norms and values can also influence children’s experience of anxiety.

It is important to remember that anxiety is a complex condition and each child’s experience is unique. Understanding the underlying causes is an important step in providing the right support and treatment. If a child shows signs of anxiety, talking to a psychologist or doctor can help identify the causes and design an effective treatment plan.

Signs of anxiety in children

Anxiety in children can be more difficult to identify than in adults because children often have difficulty expressing their feelings and the reasons for them. Here are some common signs of anxiety in children:

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Physical signs

  • Stomach aches or headaches: Unexplained stomach or headaches can be signs of anxiety.
  • Sleeping problems: Difficulty falling asleep, nightmares or nocturnal awakenings.
  • Changes in appetite: Increased or decreased appetite may be associated with anxiety.
  • Trembling or muscle tension: Children may show signs of physical nervousness or tension.

Emotional and behavioural signs

  • Excessive worry: Worry about things that are uncommon for the child’s age or developmental level.
  • Irritability: Children with anxiety may be more irritable or tearful than usual.
  • Avoidance behaviours: Avoiding situations or activities they previously enjoyed, often because of fear or worry.
  • Need for reassurance: Repeatedly seeking confirmation from adults that everything is okay.
  • Clinginess: Younger children may become more clingy or have difficulty separating from parents or caregivers.

Cognitive signs

  • Difficulty concentrating: The child may have difficulty focusing at school or during other activities.
  • Negative thoughts: Increased frequency of negative or catastrophic thoughts about what might happen.

Social signs

  • Social withdrawal: Withdrawing from peers and social interactions.
  • Performance anxiety: Worry about not living up to expectations in school or other activities.

It is important to understand that all children experience anxiety from time to time, and it is a normal part of growing up. However, when anxiety interferes with a child’s daily functioning or causes significant suffering, it is time to seek professional help. A child psychologist or child psychiatrist can offer assessment and treatment that can help the child manage their anxiety in a healthy way.

How to support children with anxiety

  • Listening and validating their feelings: Being a support where the child feels heard is fundamental.
  • Create routines: Regulated daily routines provide a sense of security and predictability.
  • Teach relaxation techniques: Breathing exercises or mindfulness can help the child manage anxiety.
  • Encourage physical activity: Exercise is effective in reducing anxiety.
  • Seek professional help: A child psychologist can offer tools and strategies adapted to the child.

Treatment for anxiety in children

Treatment for anxiety in children is individualised and often involves a combination of therapeutic methods, education and support for both the child and the family. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is at the heart of many treatment programme, where the child learns to identify, challenge and change anxiety-inducing thoughts and behaviours. Education about anxiety helps the child and their family understand what anxiety is and how it affects them.

Parent education is also an important part of the process, where parents learn strategies to support their child effectively without reinforcing the anxiety. In some cases, family therapy may also be recommended to address the dynamics within the family that may affect the child’s anxiety.

School-based interventions may be implemented to provide the child with additional support in their learning environment, and in specific cases, medication may be considered as part of the treatment, especially when the anxiety is severe and does not respond adequately to therapeutic interventions.

The treatment process includes regular evaluations to ensure that it meets the child’s needs and is adjusted if necessary. Collaboration between therapists, doctors, parents and school staff is essential to give the child the best possible support and opportunities for recovery.

12 common questions about anxiety in children

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness or fear that is often a normal reaction to perceiving something as dangerous. Children, like adults, can suffer from different types of anxiety disorders.

Are there different anxiety disorders that children can have?

There are different types of anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety, specific phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which can also affect children.

What causes anxiety in children?

Children can develop anxiety for many different reasons, often involving a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors.

What are the signs of anxiety in children?

Anxiety in children can manifest itself through physical symptoms such as stomach pain and sleep problems, emotional signs such as excessive worry and irritability, cognitive challenges such as difficulty concentrating, and social changes such as withdrawal, making it important to pay attention to these varying signals.

My child has anxiety, what can I do?

To support children with anxiety, listen and validate their feelings, create predictable routines, teach relaxation techniques, encourage physical activity, and seek professional help for tailored strategies.

How to treat anxiety in children?

Treatment of anxiety in children involves individualized therapy, mainly through CBT, and education to teach children and families to understand and manage the effects of anxiety.

How long is a treatment?

Treatment is tailored to the nature of the child or parent’s problem. It can be anything from a few sessions to a longer treatment over a couple of years.

What is CBT?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based therapy that helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to ill health.

What is a child psychologist?

A child psychologist is a licensed professional with knowledge and experience in working on the well-being and mental health of children and parents. They offer therapy and counseling, but also work with families in parental support and the whole family when needed. They also collaborate with schools to create good conditions for the child.

Can I see a child psychologist privately?

It is possible to see a child psychologist privately. At Lavendla we have several psychologists who have extensive experience of working with children and young people.

Can I see a child psychologist online?

It is possible to receive treatment online via video. We have several child psychologists who work digitally at Lavendla.

Where can I go if I or my child needs help from a child psychologist?

Depending on how old your child is, you can turn to different services. For children under 6 years of age, the Barnavårdcentralen (BVC), over 6 years of age, you can seek help via your medical center. Over the age of 13, you can go to the youth clinic or the school counselor. You can also contact child and adolescent psychiatry (BUP). At Lavendla we have experienced child psychologists who can also help.

Treatment for anxiety in children

Seeking help from a child psychologist is an important step when a child is experiencing mental health difficulties. Here is a brief overview of what treatment can look like:

First step: Initial consultation where the psychologist assesses needs through conversations with the child and parents.

Treatment plan: An individualised plan is developed, based on the child’s specific situation and needs.

Types of therapy: A common method for younger children is play therapy, where play is used as a tool for expression and processing. Other methods can also be helpful, including talk therapy and CBT for older children, which focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviours.

Parental counselling: Parents receive guidance and support to better help their child at home.

Monitoring and adjustment: The treatment plan is continuously evaluated and adjusted as needed to ensure the best possible outcome.

It is important to remember that each child is unique, so treatment may vary. Working with a child psychologist can give you and your child the tools necessary to manage emotions and behaviours in a healthy way. At Lavendla, we have child psychologists ready to help make the difficult easier.

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Written by dominic

Dominic is a Cape Town-based copywriter and editor with a background in psychology.