Anxiety and Play Therapy

Lots of children experience anxiety at some time during their childhood. It is characterised by feelings of worry, nervousness or fear. These feelings can relate to specific things, like separation from a parent, worry about talking to people and medical procedures, or it can be generalised, where the anxiety is about a range of different issues that can change over time. Play therapy can help children with anxiety by helping them process their fears through play.

Symptoms of Anxiety in Children

  • Feelings – being overwhelmed, being afraid or nervous, worrying, irritability, constant bad moods.

  • Thoughts – mind racing or going blank, feeling like you’re losing control, indecisiveness, feeling like you’re going crazy, fear of people’s judgement, unwanted or intrusive thoughts.

  • Behaviour – withdrawing or avoiding feared situations, being startled easily, seeking reassurance, becoming upset if there is a mistake or change to routine, being argumentative.

  • Physical sensations – pounding heart, chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, nightmares, sweating, numbness, choking, dry mouth, hot or cold flushes.


How you can help

  • Some children find it helpful when their parents/carers give them examples of times they felt anxious when they were a child, including examples of how they overcame it. Doing so can normalise the experience for your child, make them feel less alone, and give them hope that they won’t always feel like this either.

  • Try to avoid suggesting your child’s thinks positively, or providing ‘quick fix’ ideas. It’s much more powerful and healing to use reflective listening with your child, so they feel deeply understood. For example, “You are so scared of a monster getting you in bed, it terrifies you”.

  • Make your child feel like their fears are important to you, even if they seem silly or trivial.


How Play Therapy can help

  • The source of anxieties usually lies beneath children’s conscious awareness, meaning that they do not know why they are fearful of things. Play therapy can help children get to the source of their fears, and heal them, without them having to ‘know’ why they are anxious.

  • Play therapy can help children play out their anxieties, which helps them process the scary feelings so that they lose their power.

  • Through play, children can then practice ways of ‘being’ that are opposite to feeling anxious, like feeling powerful, strong and in control.

  • Through bringing out the anxious feelings through play, processing the feelings with the therapist’s help, and playing out more confident ways of being, children can achieve deep healing and mastery over their fears.


Play therapy is a very gentle approach to anxiety, because the child explores their fears at their own pace, rather than being ‘taken to’ the fear by the therapist.

Christine Harkin
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