Helping Your Child Manage Anxiety
You may find that given the ups and downs of the past year, that both you and your child(ren) are generally feeling more anxious. Or perhaps you've always felt a bit anxious and the pandemic and other factors have exacerbated your anxious thoughts and feelings. Know that you are not alone and that nearly everyone (if not everyone) suffers from anxiety at least once in their lives.
Here are some tips to help you and your family manage your anxiety so you can begin to feel easier and more balanced.
How are fear and anxiety different?
Fear and anxiety are interrelated. Fear is generally thought of as something felt in the present moment (fight, flight or freeze) when faced with a particular danger versus anxiety which is more of an anticipation of a future threat. For example someone might feel anxiety for several weeks before getting onto a plane and then feel fear as they step onto the plane. Anxiety is usually built up over time and certain things can make some children feel more anxious.
Like, for example:
A lot of changes in life: divorce, moving house, changing schools, etc.
Picking up on the anxiety of parents or caregivers
A traumatic experience (abuse, bullying, an accident, witnessing something distressing)
Struggling at school with peer relationships, exams, etc.
Family stress such as debt, arguing or housing issues
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
The symptoms of anxiety and fear are often the same. On a physical level, they can include:
an increased heartbeat
shallow or quick breathing
a dry mouth
On an emotional level, symptoms can include:
being preoccupied with worries about the future
Kids who suffer from anxiety can also often appear angry, lashing out at others. Often this anger is coming from a place of fear and a deep desire to protect themselves.
When is anxiety useful?
When we talk about treating anxiety through therapy, the focus is on managing the symptoms of it, rather than eliminating it entirely. That's because a little bit of anxiety is necessary to be able to plan effectively for the future, anticipating what might possibly go wrong in order to avoid problems.
Anxiety, in small doses, can also lead to productivity and positive school performance. Worrying in moderation about outcomes can mean a child is more goal-oriented, more organised, and self-disciplined. Kids (and adults) who sometimes worry are able to more effectively plan for unforeseen events and consequences that others might ignore. In other words, they are often 'one step ahead of the game'.
How can you help your child manage excessive anxiety?
1. Avoid labelling. If your child is feeling anxious, try to avoid labelling them as anxious. Telling a child (or anyone) "you are anxious" or saying to others "she/he is anxious" starts to programme this idea at their level of identity. They then start to think - "this is who I am" or "this is all I am" which is, of course, not true. Instead, explain that fear and anxiety are just feelings that visit us sometimes and then move on. They do not define us nor are they bigger than us. More helpful phrases to say to your child might be: "you are feeling anxious" or "you are doing anxiety."
2. Acknowledge all feelings. Fear is a normal human emotion. If we didn't have fear, we'd take too many risks and most likely get hurt as the fight, flight or freeze response works to keep us safe and protected. However, when fear isn't acknowledged, is ridiculed or pushed down, that's what can lead to anxiety. Therefore, it is important to take your child's fears seriously, no matter how silly they might seem to you. Allow your child to openly express how they are feeling and actively listen to what they have say. Just being there, allowing them to express, will help them to process their feelings.
2. Have positive but realistic thoughts and expectations. You can't control everything about your child's experience and upset and setbacks are bound to occur. Instead of telling them that everything will always be ok, teach them to have realistic expectations instead. If they are worried about something that may feasibly happen in the future, you might say, for example, "yes, it is possible that could happen, and it will be tough, but we will handle it together."
3. Teach calming techniques. It's never to early to teach your child calming strategies. Breathing techniques (e.g. breathing in to the count of 4 and out to the count of 8), mindfulness, yoga, exercise, doing something they love, etc. are all helpful and can help a child regulate his/her nervous system. You may even want to set up a calming corner in the house where your child can retreat to if they're feeling overwhelmed. If they have uncomfortable thoughts, you might encourage your child to imagine the thoughts like clouds or a train moving through a station, not stopping but just going past.
4. Anchor to a safe place - Have you child close their eyes and imagine a safe place in their mind. It can be a real or imaginary place. Let them tell you what it looks like, smells like, feels like and sounds like. Explain that this is their safe place that they can visit in their mind whenever they'd like. Have them imagine this safe place inside of them so they can carry it around with them always.
5. Have a place to put the worries - If your child has worried thoughts, find a place they can store their worries so that they are no longer in their minds. For this you might want to use a worry doll, a monster (a toy or picture) or a box (real or imaginary) into which they can funnel their worries. Explain to them, if they are particularly worried, that they can set aside 5 minutes a day to think the anxious thoughts and channel them into their 'worry place.' Explain that these 5 minutes are dedicated to 'worry time' so that other moments in the day can be worry free.
6. Be Supportive - You want to be there for your children, no matter what. Stay with them if they are feeling scared and tell them, "I know it's scary, but I'm here with you."
Over time you will also want to help them to learn to tolerate normal feelings of fear or nervousness. The best way to do this is to model coping strategies to them. For example, don't be afraid to share with them experiences you've had in the past in which you've felt nervous and explain to them how you coped. You might say "Once, I had to do a presentation at work and I was feeling really worried. Beforehand, I imagined in my mind everything going well and before I got up to speak, I connected to the safe place in my body and took three long, slow breaths and felt so much better."
7. Have a plan for the future - If there is something your child is particularly worried about, talk about how you would deal with it if it did occur. Think about - what if that did happen? What would we do? For example, my daughter recently had some fear about getting lost in a crowd and separated from me. So, we discussed what would happen if she did. I explained that she could approach a police officer or guard if there was one nearby; or speak to a mother with children and explain she was lost. We came up with a strategy which helped my daughter to feel calmer but also gave her some practical advice if the situation were to occur.
8. Try to not reinforce fears. If you get upset about what they are worried about too, unless you are both in danger, try to stay calm. Kids are very attuned to how we feel and they can pick up on our fear, even subconsciously, which will only serve to exacerbate their fears.
If you are suffering from feelings of anxiety or worried thoughts yourself, try some of the above strategies. We often pick anxiety up from our parents or as a result of events in our childhoods, many of which are stored in our subconscious minds, so don't be afraid to ask for help in managing your anxiety. The bottom line is that the calmer you feel, the more secure your child will feel.
Get in touch if you think you could benefit from some support.