With mental health issues on the rise, it is no surprise that many children, in addition to adults, suffer from anxiety. This isn’t always easy to identify in young children since their big emotions and behaviour can just be part of their growing up and understanding the world. Quite often, a child’s anxiety is not obvious until they are at school. If we can recognise early signs of anxiety, however, we stand a great chance of being able to help a child ease their worries before they become too big.
There are always going to be some children in your setting that are naturally quiet and nervous. Fears become a problem, however, when a child stops doing things because of them. Take clinginess, for example. This is a normal part of childhood development. However when a child’s clinginess becomes excessive, so much so that they might be unable to play with other children or be in a different room from their main carer, it could be a sign that there is more going on for that child. So how can we help them?
Firstly, stay calm. Children that are anxious can show very demanding and difficult behaviour and it is often hard for us to see behind this and recognise the anxiety and uncertainty there. They need you to be calm, understanding and reassure them. If a child feels that adults do not understand their worry, then this may exacerbate their behaviour.
The best way to help a child with their worries is to encourage them to talk about them. This may be easier said than done with young children who are yet to develop their language. Talk doesn’t just have to take place directly with an adult though, children are so creative and may wish to express themselves through drawings, role-play or talking through puppets. Sit back and observe – they may just communicate in a way that you are not expecting. Again, stay calm – children aren’t going to choose to open up to you if you are not calm.
There are a few tools available to buy that help children express their fears, such as worry boxes and worry dolls. You could implement these simple ideas into your early years setting without having to spend a lot of money. Cover a box in wrapping paper and put an opening at the top; there you have a worry box! Have each child’s photo nearby and explain to your children that if they are worried they can simply pop their photo inside and an adult will come and have a chat with them.
Before expecting a child to communicate their fear to you, we need to consider whether or not they recognise that they are scared. If a child can’t recognise their feeling, they are going to struggle to talk about it and deal with it. We need to teach children to recognise feelings – first in others and then in themselves. How? Have pictures representing different feelings in your setting and ask the child to match them to how someone is feeling in a story. Can they make those faces in a mirror? Which of those emotions are you feeling right now? The goal is that if they can communicate their feeling to you when they are happy and calm, they might eventually be able to communicate their feeling when they are sad, angry or scared. Don’t forget to label these emotions for the child as well – “I can see that you are feeling scared”.
"If a child does communicate a particular fear or worry to you, try to respect their feelings no matter how big or small the subject matter may seem to you. Not all fears make sense but they are still very real for a child."
There are some fantastic books available to help children understand their feelings. I love the Trace Moroney “When I am feeling…” books, plus “All Kinds of Feelings” by Emma Brownjohn – both of these are great for young children. Another favourite, albeit for the older members of your setting, is “The Huge Bag of Worries” by Virginia Ironside, which stresses the importance of talking about your worries.
If a child does communicate a particular fear or worry to you, try to respect their feelings no matter how big or small the subject matter may seem to you. Not all fears make sense but they are still very real for a child. Of course, you may find you are faced with a safeguarding issue, in which case it is essential that you follow your setting’s safeguarding procedure. However, if the fear is of something day-to-day that doesn’t usually pose a threat, try not to reinforce the fear by quickly taking the child away from the thing that scares them as soon as you see it. It is important to help a child try and deal with their worry rather than remove it. Instead, talk about the thing or situation that they are scared of, approach it together and, most importantly, let the child know that other people have fears and worries as well.
Building a child’s confidence is another fundamental part of overcoming anxiety. Start with the situation that they are comfortable in and build on it. If a child can’t cope with playing in a big group of children, then don’t put them straight into this situation and expect them to cope with it. Instead, build up gradually. Encourage the child to play with just one close friend, then, as they become more comfortable, gradually bring more children into that play. This will need to be done slowly and carefully but is a great way of building confidence in social situations.
As is the case with so many areas of early years development, dealing with anxiety in young children ultimately comes down to language and communication. If we can help children to share their feelings, experiences, and to understand our words of reassurance, then we can hopefully conquer any concerns that our young children may have and allow them to continue to grow in confidence.
About the author
Gina Smith is an experienced teacher with experience of teaching in both mainstream and special education. She is the creator of ‘Create Visual Aids’ – a business that provides both homes and education settings with bespoke visual resources. Gina recognises the fact that no two children are the same and therefore individuals are likely to need different resources. Create Visual Aids is dedicated to making visual symbols exactly how the individual needs them.