Anxiety in primary school-aged children

Emerging Minds, Australia, October

Related to Child anxiety

Resource Summary

This resource has been developed to help parents understand and recognise anxiety in primary school-aged children. It provides strategies for managing anxiety in children aged 5–12 years and identifies when professional help may need to be considered.


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. In this resource, the term ‘parent’ includes biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, and other caregivers who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

Experiencing anxiety every now and then is a normal part of growing up as children develop and learn about the world around them. It’s quite common for primary school-aged children (around 5- to 12-years-old) to feel anxious about a variety of situations and objects, especially as they face new experiences. For most children in this age group, anxiety comes and goes, and doesn’t last long.

At this age, anxious feelings range from ‘butterflies’ before a playdate or test to frequent feelings of panic that can prevent your child from doing things they want to do, such as going to school. It can be hard to recognise anxiety in children since many of the signs like stomach aches, trouble sleeping and behavioural changes may also be symptoms of physical illness or just part of a phase of growing up.

When a child’s anxious thoughts and feelings have an ongoing impact on their ability to enjoy and/or participate in one or more aspects of their daily lives it is important to seek further support. Talking to your general practitioner (GP) is a great place to start and can offer strategies to help or provide other resources should they be required. Learn more about the role of a GP in this video.

Causes and triggers of anxiety in children

Anxiety is generally caused by a combination of factors including genetics/family history, and sometimes experiences of trauma or stressful events. Examples of experiences or anxiety triggers that are common in primary school-aged children are listed as follows:

  • Younger children (around 5- to 8-years-old) may feel anxious about the dark, monsters or ghosts. They may experience separation anxiety when leaving their parent or caregiver. One of the biggest events in this age group is the shift from home or childcare to primary school. New routines, rules and changing friendships naturally lead to some uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty. At school, children need to practice skills such as independent toileting, eating and working, as well as the social skills of sharing and negotiating, which can be challenging and overwhelming for them at times.
  • Later in primary school (at around 9- to 12-years-old) most children are experiencing lots of changes – in their bodies, friendships, school environment and family relationships. They often have a growing awareness of local, national and global events like climate change and homelessness, which can add to their worries. Greater use of social media can lead children to feel pressured to look or act a certain way, while increasing the risk of cyberbullying and therefore the risk of anxiety.
  • Challenges with friendships may begin in these years including experiencing bullying or engaging in bullying behaviour, so it is important to be aware of any signs (physical or emotional). Signs that your child is experiencing bullying might include:
    • cuts or scratches
    • missing property
    • being teary or withdrawn; or
    • not wanting to go to school or staying close to teachers.
  • If your child is engaging in bullying they may talk about other children in an aggressive way or have possessions that don’t belong to them.
  • Children who have experienced natural disasters, like bushfires, flood or drought, and the trauma and family stress that often comes with them, have a higher risk of experiencing mental health difficulties and may need professional support. It’s important to remain curious in the weeks, months and even years following a disaster. Check in regularly with your child about how they’re feeling and keep an eye out for changes in their behaviour.

Identifying anxiety early and supporting your child to manage anxiety using strategies such as those outlined in the following examples can make a big difference.

But if you feel anxiety is significantly impacting your child’s wellbeing, friendships, school achievement or family life, talk to your GP. They can provide advice and further support if required while ruling out any physical underlying causes of physical symptoms.

How anxiety affects children: Signs and examples

How your child thinks about a situation, event, person or object influences their feelings and behaviours.

As you can see in the following examples, an anxious thought like ‘What if something terrible happens?’ can lead to a physical sensation (feeling sick or racing thoughts), anxious feelings (worried or scared), and then an action, like avoiding a situation (not wanting to stay at Grandma’s place or go to school).

Example 1: Time away from parents

Example 2: School example

Children experience anxiety in lots of different ways and it can be hard to identify.

Children experience anxiety in lots of different ways. In primary school-aged children, anxiety can appear or be described by children as:

  • increased irritability and outbursts
  • butterflies or a sore tummy (stomach pains)
  • headaches and dizziness
  • being able to feel their heart beating, or heart beats really fast
  • trouble concentrating at school, because they’re distracted by worrying thoughts
  • trouble sleeping.

The following are some examples of how children experience and show anxiety.

Anxious thoughts in children aged 5–8 years

What if:

  • …the door is unlocked and the ghost takes me away?
  • …Mum or Dad don’t come to tuck me in and check I’m OK?
  • …I don’t get this right and the teacher yells at me?
  • …no one likes me?
  • …the dog jumps up and bites me?
  • …my friends aren’t there and I’m all alone?
  • …Dad is late dropping me off at school and I’m late for the test?
  • …the plane crashes and my grandma dies?
  • …I won’t have anyone to play with and the other kids laugh at me?

Anxious thoughts in children aged 9–12 years

Am I normal?

I can’t do this. Why can’t I do this like everyone else? They’re going to think I’m hopeless.

What if:

  • …the other kids don’t talk to me?
  • …I can’t get through the speech?
  • …I can’t get off the bus in time?
  • …I fail this exam?
  • …Dad is late dropping me off at school?
  • …I don’t have the right clothes for school camp?
  • …I don’t respond to Sarah’s message in time?

Then something terrible (insert following) will happen:

  • …I’ll never make any friends.
  • …the teacher will yell at me and everyone will laugh.
  • …I’ll have to move schools.
  • …I’ll be late and get a detention.
  • …my parents will ground me forever.
  • …I’ll cry in front of everyone.
  • …Sarah won’t invite me to the party and I’ll never make any friends.
  • …I won’t get into the soccer competition.

Words children may use

  • ‘I don’t want to.’
  • ‘Can I stay with you?’
  • ‘I feel sick.’
  • ‘My tummy hurts.’
  • ‘I think we should go now.’
  • ‘I’m scared.’
  • ‘My head hurts.’
  • ‘I can’t do it, you do it.’
  • ‘I need you here.’
  • ‘When can we go home?’

Feelings in the body

  • Breathing fast (hyperventilating)
  • Tiredness
  • Racing heart
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Needing to use the toilet
  • Stomach aches
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty getting to sleep
  • Suddenly feeling hot or cold
  • Sweating
  • Feeling shaky
  • Butterflies in the stomach

Anxious feelings

As an adult you may be able to identify and name anxious feelings such as ‘fear’, ‘worry’ or ‘panic’. However, children often find it harder to do so. Instead, focus on your child’s thoughts, actions, physical sensations and the words they use that will indicate they may be experiencing anxiety.


In response to their anxious thoughts and feelings, children may:

  • avoid, or try to avoid, or get away from situations, objects or people that bring on anxious feelings. For example, your child may say they can’t participate in an activity or go to an event because they feel sick or are in pain (when there is no medical explanation), or they might come up with excuses to leave an event early
  • constantly seek reassurance from adults by asking lots of questions. For example, ‘What’s going to happen?’ and ‘What are we going to do if…happens?’
  • try to control people or the situations that bring on feelings of anxiety. For example, they might ask someone else to do an activity or task which they could do for themselves.

At this age it’s common for children to manage their emotions while at school or in public, and then let their feelings out when at home, sometimes in the form of big emotional outbursts, like fighting with siblings or parents, swearing, yelling or crying.

What you can do

There are lots of things you can do to help your child better manage anxiety and reduce its impact on their life:

  • Acknowledge their anxious feelings and thoughts (if possible) and let them know that most children feel anxious sometimes.
  • Gently encourage them to do things they’re anxious about, as avoidance makes anxiety continue and get worse, rather than go away. When they do try something new or face a situation that makes them anxious, praise them for these actions and talk about how they managed it.
  • Help them learn, and support them to use, calming and other strategies that will reduce the impact of anxiety on their daily life, such as deep breathing.

Identifying anxiety early and helping your child to manage it can make a big difference.

Getting professional support

It can be very difficult to tell if your child’s behaviour is just a phase, or a signal that they’re struggling with anxiety and need help from a health professional.

Remember you are the expert on your child, and if you feel anxiety is impacting on their daily life, wellbeing, relationships, school achievement or family life, talk to your GP. They can assess your child and talk to you about the types of support available. Getting professional support early can build resilience in your child which will be an important foundation as they grow.

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