Anxiety in children

Anxiety in children

Anxiety means to be anxious about something, severe, regular anxiety can lead to stress and prolonged stress can lead to depression and other problems. 

There are three broad stages in a child’s life (Rudolf Steiner) infancy, childhood and adolescence. So let see how each stage is affected by anxiety and stress 

In infancy the first anxiety that children exhibit is ‘separation anxiety’ and that manifests itself when ‘object permanence’ sets in at the age of 6 to 9 months. This is when the child realizes that the toy you hide and he cannot see is still out there somewhere and now the child is anxious to find it. Separation anxiety is the most important cause of ‘settling issues’ in playschools. Children do not want to be separated from the caregiver (mother, father) as they are unsure of where they will be and whether they will come back. So both the teacher and the parent have to play a joint role is reducing this separation anxiety, mother by talking positively to the child about the school and the teacher, telling the child where she will be after she drops the child at school and then being on time to pick up the child. And the teacher to support the child by sticking to a known routine and keeping the child interested and reassured. (Check Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety and security is the second need before the child can concentrate or learn) 

As child enters primary school or the childhood years anxiety is about the unknown, about bullies and about belonging as social development has just set in. infact the childhood years are about socialization as they have just emerged from the ‘I , me, myself’ phase and entered the group play stage. So suddenly friends become important. Preparing children for what comes next, giving them breathing transitions, listening to them all helps reduce anxiety in these children. School can help by keeping things common for all kids as comparison is high during this stage. So common uniforms, bags, bottles, shoes all help bring about uniformity and help them belong. Tests are another thing that worries these kids as winning and losing is important to them. It helps if tests (dictation, oral tests, and exams) are completed in the early half of the school day as it helps them focus on learning once the anxiety is removed. Bullying is very common and a common reason for school anxiety, it helps if school and home teach kids about conflict resolution and talk the same language. Otherwise home may teach child to go and hit the bully and school may teach him to ignore the bully and child is now anxious about whom to listen to. Self esteem needs to be nurtured at this stage so ridicule, sarcasm, punishments are all detrimental to the growing self image and may put the child on a vicious cycle of punishment- retaliation-misbehavior-punishment. 

In the adolescent years anxiety is due to peer pressure (another form of bullying, here it is bullying to fit in) self image, succeeding, scoring points in the social group. They have loads of secrets and hate to be spied on; half the anxiety is about holding on to their own and friends secrets. Anxiety for them sometimes also works like adrenalin so they thrive on risks and risk taking. Parental pressure to succeed, schools inability to guide at the right time and ‘fitting in’ to their social circle’s idea of ‘success’ all send the anxiety and stress levels for a toss in this age group. Incorrect diet (junk food, less water, more coffee, dieting) only enhances the inability of their body to handle stress. 

What can schools do about anxiety and stress in children-

  1. Teachers to have knowledge about child psychology, child development, emotional development and brain research, it’s time to stop putting the blame on B.Ed colleges and schools should themselves equip their teachers with training and workshops on understanding and recognizing anxiety and stress in children
  2. Knowledge about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs does help a teacher as it clearly shows the requirements in an individual before any kind of focus, attention and learning can take place.
  3.  Teachers need to work on knowing their students, their temperaments, their home atmosphere as anxiety is related to Insecure attachment between mother and child may be a risk factor for the development of anxiety disorder in childhood (Bernstein, Borchardt, & Perwein, 1996).Shared environmental influences are thought to play a greater role in the development of separation anxiety and specific phobias, implicating a role of parental and family factors (e.g., Eley et al., 2003; Muris & Merckelbach, 2001).
  4. Ability to handle anxiety depends on ones temperament (Rudolf Steiner- children’s temperaments- Sanguine, Melancholic, Phlegmatic and Choleric) so teachers to handle and interact with kids as per their temperament and not use a ‘one size fits all’ technique.
  5. Anxiety and stress in kids can lead to learning problems and behavioral issues, so here teachers to use the Anne Copley method of  a dynamic structure called the Learning Zone Model,  four behavioral zones in which students and teachers operate:
  • The safe zone: where students feel a sense of safety, self-worth and physical and emotional security.
  • The learning zone: where students are challenged but at the same time supported to learn.
  • The anxiety zone: where students begin to experience negative stress about the learning experience, and low-level misbehavior happens.
  • The stress zone: where students react in the classroom, are violent or uncontrollably abusive.
  1. Knowledge of brain research is a must if a teacher wants to understand about anxiety and help in stemming it before it reaches a stressful level. Brain based training facts as this knowledge is extremely important in handling agitated, upset and anxious and frightened children, adults etc. As human beings we think with our prefrontal cortex which is the front part of our brain, (the area behind our forehead) all higher order thinking, logic, planning, intelligence association is done in this part of the brain. But all inputs to the brain first go through a part of our brain called the amygdala, so for any information to go to the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) it has to pass through the amygdala. Now the information passes smoothly during happy and positive experiences, but when the human being is upset or scared then the amygdala can hold the information and take its own decisions. Amygdala has only two decisions, fight or flight, so either the person you are trying to handle in a stressful situation will start fighting, arguing or get aggressive with you or will start crying, hiding or not want to meet you or talk to you. In this situation you as the person in charge have to realize that the brain required dopamine chemical to function smoothly and calmly, happy emotions can trigger dopamine. So talk calmly to the child, talk positively to the child, allow the child to drink water (water has oxygen and oxygen is one of the requirements of the brain, it helps calm it) and do not shout or ridicule or blame the child at this point. Or amygdala will hijack the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. 
  2. Based on the above Teachers should consciously use  RAD learning in the classroom- (R- reticular activating system, A- amygdala’s filter, D- dopamine).
  3. Schools should have a zero tolerance policy for teachers using sarcasm, ridicule, threatening and demeaning punishments as it directly harms self esteem, confidence, and self image in kids and creates unnecessary fear that leads to stress. 
  4. Schools to complete tests, dictation in the early half of the day so as not to heighten anxiety in children.
  5. Have school buddy system in place where there are specific children who are buddies for children identified with personalities that need more support and nurturing.
  6. Teachers to be alert and vigilant about bullies especially in the school bus and help kids to talk about the bullies and teach them positive and successful ways of dealing with the bullies.
  7. Anxiety also depends on how a school day begins, if a school day begins with ridiculing ‘me’ because of scruffy shoes or a tie gone askew then the day begins on a negative note and then……. read point no 6 above.
  8. Teachers to use stress busters throughout the day, these can be small jokes, ice breakers, deep breathing, stretching postures or just a surprise classroom  jig ( everyone is talking about the mob dances at railway station recently) 

Details about RAD learning-

Reticular activating system

  • keeping the eyes interested so,
  • Multi sensory activities  to get the brain’s attention
  • Reticular Activating System alerts the brain to change and gets it primed to interact with new information 

Amygdala’s filter-

  • Is a part of the brain, which first catches all information before it reaches the prefrontal lobe. 
  • Games and activities that reduce stress and increase pleasurable associations help keep this brain filter from  blocking information 


  • With pleasurable experiences comes this neurotransmitters release
  • With dopamine there is Increase in focus, attention and executive functions in the frontal lobe. 

Dr. Swati Popat Vats
Parenting Mentor and Coach


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