Living with an anxious child

Anxious child

My eldest daughter has always been anxious. As a baby, she was scared of lots of things: loud noises, men (especially ones with beards), dogs. I can vividly remember the first time I realised she was actually scared of something, and wasn’t crying because she was hungry or tired. She was about four months old and sitting happily in her baby bouncer. I was changing a bin bag and when I shook it out to open it, her eyes grew wide with terror and she started howling.

Her fear grew so that by the age of 18 months she was scared of hoovers, motorbikes, drills, lawnmowers. Pretty much anything that made any kind of noise really. If we were walking down the road and someone was mowing their lawn she’d scream and scream, covering her ears and cowering in fear.

Now she is four and a half years old and that anxiety manifests itself in other ways. She’s no longer scared of lawnmowers or motorbikes. These days she’s scared of more complicated things – things that she can’t always explain. Things that, to you and me, would seem like ridiculously odd things to be scared of. 

Frog goes through phases where she worries about something continually, like an obsession. At the moment it’s all about splinters – “Do I have a splinter Mummy? I think I have a splinter? Is that a splinter? I need a plaster!”. Recently it was the vents on swimming pools – “Will it suck me in Mummy? I’m too worried about it to go swimming!”. Today she worried for most of the afternoon that she would need an operation because she had a sore arm, so I expect operations are going to be the new anxiety trend this week.

Elsa Frozen dress

Being the parent of an anxious child is exhausting, frustrating and heartbreaking in equal measure. For example, when I collected her from school a couple of weeks ago to hear she’d spent the morning sobbing over an imaginary splinter in her thumb, I could have cried. I hate to think of her being upset about something like that when I’m not there to help her deal with it. And then there’s the worry (ironic, I know) that other kids at school will ostracise her or mark her as being a bit of a “cry baby” for crying about such random things. But it’s also tiring having to constantly deal with whatever new phobia presents itself from week to week. And it is constant – whatever the current obsession is, it’s mentioned around a hundred times every single day.

The thing is, I can completely relate to Frog’s anxiety, because I was an anxious child myself. There’s one moment from my childhood that I can clearly remember and, looking back on it as an adult makes me realise I was probably very much like my own daughter. I was in a swimming lesson, waiting in a line of kids to jump into the water. I felt happy and calm. But as soon as I realised that I was happy I started searching through my head for things I needed to worry about. I was about eight years old at the time. When I couldn’t find anything I settled on the one thing that always loomed large – the BCG vaccine I would have at the age of twelve. Standing in that line of kids I thought, “After I’m twelve I won’t have anything to worry about because I’ll have had my big injection and that’ll be it.” Weird, huh?!

And it’s not just me either. My dad was an anxious kid too. He was terrified of moths and, as an extension of that, feathers. He recalls being chased around by his brother and sisters brandishing those white downy feathers that look like bits of fluff. He was terrified. He also used to worry whenever he’d get a new toy that it would get scratched, putting a piece of straw on it before he went to bed. The idea was, if he woke up and the straw was gone, he’d know his toy had been messed with. Told you – we’re a family of oddballs.

Grandad and Frog

As an adult I’ve learned how to manage my anxiety. Looking at me, it might surprise you to know that I’m a worrier. I probably come across as confident, chatty and relaxed. And I AM all of those things, and I always have been – the anxiety was just this secret thing I kept close to my chest much of the time. Anxiety isn’t cool, after all.

I was in plays and performed on stage in dance shows growing up, I wasn’t scared to put my hand up in class and I certainly wasn’t shy. Just like my own daughter in that respect. The anxiety only became a problem for me when I let it stop me doing things. I pulled out of a piano exam once because I was too scared, for example. I very nearly gave up driving lessons because the whole thing terrified me. As I got older it was about talking myself out of applying for jobs or putting myself forward for work opportunities. But, each and every time, I managed to face my fear and (to coin a cheesy motivational poster) do it anyway.

As a mum, I feel sad for my daughter that she’s going to have to face all of these hurdles herself. I know the horror of a panic attack and the stomach clenching nerves of lying awake at night worrying about something so small that by morning you’re a nervous wreck and can’t stand the sight of yourself in the mirror. I really, really don’t want her to go through that too.

Unfortunately though, the signs are there that she probably will. I expect her anxiety will be a burden that, like me, she’ll have to learn to deal with. For now, all I can do is to remain patient with her and keep helping her to talk through all of her worries, even if they seem like stupid things. I need to remember that her response to a worry will often be a physical one, so no amount of reasoning will help her “get over it” straight away. I need to keep empathising with her, using language like, “I understand you’re worried about that – I sometimes worry about things like this too” etc.

And, above all, I need to make sure to celebrate the positives that come with being of an anxious nature. The sensitive, bright, articulate, imaginative side that my daughter has wouldn’t exist without its dark and anxious undercurrent.

Tell me, do you have an anxious child or suffer with anxiety? Can you relate to any of this at all? 


  1. says

    I second what Jane says, but I can definitely relate to this a little – G has gone through phases of being scared of things like hand dryers and dogs (properly scared – crying and shaking, clinging to me) and you’re right, it’s so heartbreaking to see, and it’s so hard to tell someone not to be scared, because you saying those words doesn’t make the thing any less scary.
    I’ve only recently realised that anxiety is something I’ve suffered from every now and then – I’d never really analysed it or pin pointed it, but there have been periods of my life when I’ve felt low and anxious. I even got it today when I was walking through crowded central London with G and kept imagining her being snatched or something awful happening to us. Clearly I’m going mad, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one ;) xxx

    • says

      Definitely not the only one – I’ve had that exact same fear when I’ve been in public places with Frog Alison! I also get it in car parks and near busy roads – this irrational worry that Frog might get run over. I try really hard not to pass it on but I’m ALL about the road safety. Poor child, she has no chance does she?!

  2. Leanna says

    Oh definitely. And I think it’s hard sometimes because a lot of people assume that shyness and anxiety come hand in hand when that’s simply not true. It just that shy people often ‘play it safe’, not involving themselves in a lot of dialogue.
    I think that as adults, ( especially in our 30’s) we get more aware of the things that trigger our anxiety and tend to make choices that help us to avoid it.
    Paradoxically though, I think anxious people end up being generally more empathetic and sensitive towards others and like any other personality trait, anxiety makes us who we are and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is good that frog has a sensitive mum (who has done enough reflective thinking herself) to be able to spot the signs and offer a sympathetic approach.
    Dealing with another persons anxiety effectively is a real skill and the making of a truly excellent person, who people will want to be around. Xxx

    • says

      Thank you for such a lovely comment Leanna – you’re a lovely friend! I definitely agree that people often assume shyness and anxiety goes hand in hand. I hope I’m able to keep remembering what it feels like so I can empathise with Frog. Anxiety is such a tricky one to deal with. On the one hand I need to help her deal with it but on the other I need to not indulge it to the extent she thinks she NEEDS to be worried about these things. Oh, parenting!

  3. says

    We’ve been through phases like this with my Molly – she is often incapable of making a choice, for fear of it being the wrong one…….so much so, it has taken 6 months to buy her a desk chair simply because she couldn’t pick between red and orange (and in the end we chose for her!)! She also hates the idea of things no longer being perfect – she can go months after her Birthday with new toys still in their packaging in order to keep them immaculate!
    She is, however, the smartest creature you might hope to meet and the bouts of indecision are becoming less frequent (there was a time when she would have a meltdown about it 4+ times a day!) so here’s hoping it may not be forever!

    • says

      She sounds like a real sweetheart – and very like how I was as a child! In fact, I’m still a bit like that when making decisions now. Often takes me ages to choose something for fear of making the wrong choice. I’m the worst in restaurants – often get proper food envy!

  4. says

    I think that your daughter is so lucky to have a mum like you who understands and can help. I know sometimes that makes it more raw and painful for you but in the long run it will help her. I also “non officially” suffer from panic attacks. it is horrible. My eldest daughter gets very anxious too and on times these have resulted in panic attacks which makes me feel guilty as I feel like I’ve passed them on. Definitely celebrate the positives. Sensitivity is such a quietly powerful characteristic to have xxx

    • says

      Thank you Claire – you’re so right, it is painful to see her going through it, but I guess there are plus sides to it too. I know my husband often finds it really hard to relate to her anxiety and gets very frustrated trying to help her deal with it because he just doesn’t get why she’d be worried about something like that. Panic attacks are really nasty but I like to think they’re character building too! I haven’t had one for around six years (since I’ve been with the NLM actually) and I don’t miss them AT ALL.

  5. says

    though i don’t have a child, i can relate to this post so much. what i see in spades is that you are a caring mother that loves her child and wants the best for her. and the fact that you have been through this yourself can be a help rather than a hindrance because you *get* it and can at least attempt to help and understand. it must take a huge amount of patience.

    also, i REALLY idenified with: ‘But as soon as I realised that I was happy I started searching through my head for things I needed to worry about’ …because YES, just so much yes.

  6. says

    You’ve met my girlie. Happy, confident, chatty. And she is most of the time. Then all of a sudden, she will have a massive crisis of confidence about something. She’s had phases of being worried about things in the dark, being scared of swimming. She’ll get over it generally and then her confidence will just fly but only last week, she nearly pulled out of swimming a time trial because she reckoned she couldn’t do breaststroke, even tho her teacher had told me she’s the best in the class. I had to bribe her to do it! I like to let her talk about it to me so that she doesn’t bottle it up and we can look at these things. I remind her of the times when she’s said she can’t do something and then she’s been able to learn how to do it.

    That’s the main thrust of her anxiety but it can happen in other ways. She’s definitely the less resilient of my two and needs my support. I always think that acknowledging that she’s anxious allows her to accept it and learn how to deal with it, if that makes sense.

  7. Gemma says

    Oh Molly – being married to a wonderful man who at times is crippled by anxiety, your post really resonates and reminds me to muster all my patience no matter how illogical his current obsessions appear to me. I suspect the little Dubaiby I am currently baking (whoopeeeee!!) may too inherit a tendency to worry too much but with it I hope they are creative and extraordinary in equal measure.
    Keep writing lovely lady

  8. says

    Beautiful and honest – you have honed a difficult subject into a collection of words that makes utter sense. Being able to articulate anxiety and clarify anxiety is the best support F has. X

  9. says

    This is such a well written and honest post thanks for sharing. I recently found out Im suffering from anxiety and but never once thought it could happen to a child so young.

  10. Ghislaine Forbes says

    I suppose it wouldn’t be the done thing to rename Frog “scaredy cat”? Only joking!

    I could always see your anxiety on stage by your crooked mouth until you relaxed into a performance and started to smile. Then I could relax. Love ma x

  11. says

    Beautifully written post. I hadn’t honestly realised this kind of thing existed long term. I’ve obviously experienced a degree of this with both my children – the small things that often seem like irrational worries – but for it to be ongoing must be exhausting. Thank goodness you went through it too so know how to cope. And you’re so right to look at the positives and celebrate all that is unique about her wonderful, sensitive soul x

  12. says

    Charlotte used to be scared of men and run and hide, if I answered the doorbell and it was a stranger; I used to find her under the table. I also remember Sarah’s fear of splinters, turning from a child into an adult, weedkillers and heights. Her teacher had to rescue her as she clung with fear to the wall bars in a PE lesson. Reassurance is absolutely the right thing and although she appears to mention the focus of her anxiety a hundred times a day, it’s probably her way of rationalising everything. We had a break-in, when Charlotte was four and she banged on about it for ages – weeks. She would make what appeared to be rather tenuous links, just so she could mention the break-in and talk about it until she finally felt comfortable.

  13. says

    Really honest and insightful piece Molly. I really feel for you managing these everyday situations, it sounds very stressful. In an odd way, and this isn’t meant to sound at all facetious, I wish Baby B had more fear. He seems to be afraid of nothing and no one and hurtles through his world without stopping to think. But then he is only 11 months old so I hope he develops some sense of risk as he gets older. Your post has made me think about how we respond to risks and situations as parents, trying to find a balance between letting him explore and hovering in anxious anticipation of him hurting himself. How will we ever deal with questions about all the bad things in the world?
    It sounds like you’re handling your daughter’s fears in a very perceptive and understanding way and wish you well in your journey.

    • says

      Kids are hard work aren’t they?! There are definite pros and cons to being anxious, just as there are pros and cons to being the opposite. I guess as parents all we can do is attempt to help our kids find some kind of balance and give them tools to cope with whatever challenges they face. Bloody hard though!

  14. says

    Oh gosh Molly, I could have written a post just like this about my son and his anxieties. It’s something new all the time – sometimes something very understandable, and other times something completely random. We went through a spell when he was about 3 where every time we walked through the park near our house he’d cry in terror at the prospect of the squirrels stealing his toys.

    You are so right that it is heartbreaking and frustrating in equal measure. I wish I could lift those worries off him sometime so that he felt lighter and more able to have fun without feeling anxious. If it’s any consolation, his swimming teacher told me that anxiety is more common in very intelligent kids because they’re more able to picture the risks in a situation!

    It has got easier for us with age – both as he has become more able to communicate his anxieties, and as I’ve got better at finding strategies to deal with them. We have a ‘what’s the worst that could happen’ thing where we talk through all the possibilities of what might happen in a situation he is worried about, and then we work out what he would do if each thing happened, so he feels better equipped to deal with every eventuality.

    As a fellow worrier, I think it is also going to get easier when he can write independently, because it’ll give him an outlet for expressing anxieties and working through thoughts himself, without feeling he has to talk them all through with me. Hang in there lovely, you are doing a great job, and it’s fab that Frog has a mum who is so understanding of her xxx

    • says

      He sounds very like Frog! What a sweet thing to worry about though – that the squirrels would steal his toys! Frog was in Tesco’s the other day and spent the entire shopping trip with her head in her hands, terrified that the CCTV cameras would spot her and someone would come and tell her off. No amount of explaining that she wasn’t doing anything wrong would help. It’s so funny / frustrating / interesting to see the things they worry about – I do feel for them though. It’s not easy being a worrier. x

  15. says

    Sorry, it’s taken me about a week after reading this to come back and comment! I was such an anxious child and I can remember worrying about EVERYTHING, especially at night when I would lie there thinking about fires, burglars and death. Cherry goes through phases where she will worry about things, it’s more just fears at the moment like dragons etc but she won’t go upstairs on her own because of them. She’s also started having nightmares and will then be scared of what it was she dreamt about for days afterwards. It’s so hard because you just want them to know it’s okay and not to worry but it’s not that easy as words don’t really help x

    • says

      Thank you for such a lovely comment Jess. You’re right, it’s really hard to know how to deal with it. I guess with all things parenting related I can only follow my instincts and attempt to do what feels right. I do think it helps being able to relate to what she’s going through. Anxiety is a difficult cross to bear! x


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