Tuesday 15 October 2019

Dealing with anxiety in five to 10 year olds: common causes and how to cope

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Sheena McGinley

Yes, they seem more reasonable than they were at age three.

Yes, they’ve moved on from throwing the mother of all tantrums in the toy aisle of Tescos, AND, they can still manage to tolerate being in the same room as you. Kids aged between 5 and 10 really are the best! Comparably, they are, but these years are just as important to navigate — particularly for a naturally fretful child.

Children aged between five and 10 years are considered to be in the “latency period” — before puberty hits and things get extra interesting — so it’s all too easy to emit a sigh of relief and take a well-earned breather after the whirlwind of the early years.

However, there’s no time to recline on your laurels. Why? Because this is a critical time for building relationships.

Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist with St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, says the mindset of those aged between five and 10 years is “very black and white during this phase and the world of fairness, justice, rules and clarity reign”.

“The whole stage is important, as it is during this phase when the social world becomes important. Children are now independently forming relationships outside their family and this is a crucial step in their social development.”


In our last instalment, which focused on anxiety in infants, we looked at attachment styles, separation anxiety, and getting ready for the move to ‘big school’.

Considering the summer holidays seem utterly infinite to your average five to seven-year-old, it’s worth remembering that starting back as a Senior Infant can be just as tricky for additional reasons. There are, however, steps that can aid the transition.

Author, psychotherapist and parenting expert Joanna Fortune has devised a range of 15-minute games to help parents and kids bolster their bond in an increasingly hectic world. According to Fortune, “play is the language of children... By rediscovering the joy of play as an adult, you can access a whole new way to understand and respond to your child’s needs.”

If you are an increasingly preoccupied parent, it’s obviously important to tap into what’s going on with the children, therefore — in conjunction with playing with them after school — also ask them about their day. Not the usual barrage of questions; Fortune says focus instead on “what the best bit of their day was and what bit they’d like to change”.


Going “back to school” can induce pure joy in some, while instilling chills in others. If it’s the latter, chances are it has something to do with your kids’ schoolmates.

We asked Dr Noctor if there are indicators that a child is being bullied or excluded in the schoolyard, and how best to support them if this is the case...

Signs of bullying

• Children can display a reluctance to attend school; there may be repeated somatic complaints, such as a sore tummy, prior to school

• The child may be quiet in themselves and lose their interest or passion in things

• They can appear irritable, stressed, and have difficulty sleeping

• They may be observed as being overly bossy or aggressive with younger siblings. This is compensation for feeling powerless in the school environment.

Dr Noctor also adds: “Remember, repeated denial that bullying is happening is not proof that it is not. Children frequently conceal bullying as they feel ashamed and worried about what reporting it will mean.”


With recent reports of  attempted child abduction occurring outside schools in the Dublin area, talking to your child about “stranger danger” is  imperative.

But what is the healthiest way of  imparting how to deal with such a situation without causing further anxiety? Positive reinforcement is the starting block.

Fortune stipulates that children respond best to “positive statements and language. Telling them clearly what you expect and want them to do, rather than focusing on what not to do.”

“Instead, tell them specifically who will collect them (for example, have the designated person and a back-up person named in case plans change during the day) and give them a pick-up code word, so that they know you have sent the person to collect them.” 

Additionally, Fortune advises to “highlight the ‘helping people’ in their circle, so that if they ever feel unsure, they know to go to the teacher (for example) and ask them to check with mum/dad about pick up.”

She adds: “It is also worth explaining to children that safe grown-ups would never ask a child to help them with something. For example, a safe grown-up would never ask a child to help them find their puppy or to go see the puppy in their car. It is okay to say ‘no’ to a grown-up they do not know.”


Considering the World Health Organization recently released somewhat stringent guidelines regarding screen time for kids under five (including zero screens for those under 12 months, and no more than one hour thereafter until the infant is aged five), should kids of any age be exposed to technology?

I asked Dr Noctor whether we should be encouraging our kids to limit screen time, or simply embrace the age of technology — as it’s pretty unavoidable at this point. Understandably, he was at pains to convey just how complex this area is as “there are multiple layers to the impact technology has on our mental lives”.

When queried regarding the correlation between anxiety and screen time, Noctor added “there is definitely an increase in anxiety in my experience. Never before have I seen more anxious children, and never before have I seen more anxious parents. Directly relating this to technology is not possible, but we are living in a culture and a time that is driving our expectations and not nurturing our emotional health.

“This, in my view, is having an impact on our mood and anxieties, of which technology is not having an overly positive influence.”

With screen time increasingly under the spotlight, is there a preferred way to help regulate it?

It’s a case of quality over quantity: “We should focus on developing healthy relationships with technology... We could clean up the internet entirely, yet we would still have cases of young people spending hours watching YouTube clips of cats on skateboards... My view is that we are asking children to regulate their own desire in a world that is manipulating their desire and this is both unfair and an unreasonable expectation.

“I could spend an hour on YouTube learning a song on a guitar, and I could spend an hour on Instagram looking at other peoples profiles and feeling utterly miserable. Two completely different activities, which screen time would measure as the same. So let’s talk less about time spent online and more about what we do online.”

At this age, a formative time when it comes to children building relationships independently, it’s paramount to forge and maintain healthy lines of communication that will extend into puberty.

If you’re concerned about the future barrage of technology your child will inevitably encounter, Cybersafeireland.org recommends discussing online activity. For example, let your child know the “internet is designed to be addictive” and how the online world does not “define you as a person.” 

Above all, let them know you are always there to talk to about any concerns. Talking, in conjunction with time spent being active (preferably in nature) and good food choices, will always be the building blocks towards better mental health.

Joanna Fortune is author of 15 Minute Parenting and a weekly parenting expert on Newstalk’s Sean Moncrieff show; Dr Colman Noctor is author of Cop On: What It Is and Why Your Child Needs It to Thrive and Survive in Today’s World


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