Anxiety is one of the biggest issues facing parents today. At times it can feel like we are powerless to help, but there are ways to help your child manage anxiety. For a child it can be scary and overwhelming. And for parents it can be incredibly distressing to witness. You may not be able to take away their anxiety completely, but there are things you can do to help minimise their anxiety and equip them with effective coping skills.
How you can help your child manage anxiety
We are pretty familiar with anxiety in our family. I have two daughters who experience anxiety, though their symptoms and triggers are different. My nine-year-old has struggled with anxiety since she was a toddler. I am not a qualified psychologist, but I have done a lot of research into anxiety over the past five years. There is no magic cure for anxiety, but in this blog post I am going to share with you five ways to help your child manage anxiety. But first let’s look at what anxiety is…
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety presents in many forms. It can be mild, severe or debilitating and can range from clinginess in little ones to panic attacks in teens. It is also important to distinguish between an anxiety disorder (a clinical, diagnosed condition) and anxious habits, which start early and develop over time.
About 1 in 10 children suffer from anxiety. It’s normal for children to feel worried or anxious from time to time, but for some children, anxiety affects their behaviour and thoughts, interfering with their school, home and social life. This is when you may need to seek professional help.
Anxiety is the most common psychological problem found in children.
Anxiety Types and Triggers
There are some common diagnosed anxiety disorders such as social phobia, PTSD, Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). These require professional help and seeking help early is key.
My own girls’ experiences of anxiety include social anxiety, performance anxiety, separation anxiety, and nighttime anxiety. They have difficulty coping with change, and anxiety is heightened when life is uncertain, unsettled or too “busy”. Or when there is a global pandemic!
Here are 5 ways you can help your daughter manage her anxiety.
1. Name it
Anxiety is not something to be ashamed of and so we openly use the term ‘anxiety’ to explain and normalise it. I have learnt that however irrational a child’s fears may seem to us, they are completely rational to them.
Research has found that when you name the feeling and offer what’s needed (assurance, warmth, security) the need behind the feeling will ease.
Talk to her about what anxiety is and reassure her that anxiety is normal, and everyone experiences it at some time. Sometimes it happens for no reason at all. It happens to lots of adults and lots of kids.
Explain the Fight or flight response to them in simple language. Karen Sigmund does a great job of this and explains the role of the Amygdala, which is the size of an almond. Her book, “Hey Warrior” explains anxiety in a way that everyone can understand the physiology behind why your brain does what it does.
2. Adopt a gentle tone
Early on in my daughter’s life I realised that she was extremely sensitive to tone. If she feels intimated, scared or like she has done something wrong, she becomes flooded with emotion. In the early days I too would get flooded with emotion and my frustrations showed. This doesn’t mean that I can’t be firm, but I have learnt that a gentle tone often works as a circuit breaker to emotional overload.
The more patience and love I demonstrate, the less likely the anxiety will take hold.
3. Offer Reassurance
Anxious children often attach themselves to worries like Velcro. When a child is in the grip of anxiety, they need us to validate them, without trying to change them. Reassure them without reinforcing their anxiety. Show empathy and encouragement. Don’t tell them they’re overreacting. And remember, emotions are contagious, so is calm. They will match your intensity and tone so keep it calm.
What your child needs most from you is reassurance. There is no “quick fix” for anxiety. The best thing you can do is offer them acceptance and never make them feel “flawed” or a burden to you.
Use supportive language like: “I am here for you”, “It’s OK you feel this way” and “I will sit here with you for as long as it takes you to feel better.”
4. Acknowledge Fears
When my daughter was around six, she became increasingly anxious around bedtime. She told me that bears were visiting her during the night. They would sit on her bed and stare at her. Instead of saying, “But bears aren’t real”, I suggested that perhaps the bears were simply curious, and not there to harm her. But still, she didn’t want them there. So I drew a map of our house and posted it on her bedroom door. On the map I drew arrows to direct the bears to my bedroom, so they could come to me instead. She loved the map, and it helped her feel more secure. This works for very young children, but the same approach can be applied to older kids. The key is not to dismiss their worries.
There are many situations in which my daughter feels nervous. She tends to perceive danger and threat, even when there isn’t any. Recently, during a storm, she was worried that the roof would fall in. I acknowledged her concerns and then explained that it’s true that the roof could fall in, but it was incredibly unlikely. I reminded her that our house was only built two years ago and there was a building inspection conducted which showed the house was solid. We discussed the likelihood of it happening so was slim that it wasn’t a helpful worry.
I have also shared with her a very powerful statistic that offers reassurance:
85 per cent of what we worry about never happens.
An abundance of scientific research has demonstrated the profound effects of mindfulness. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. The great thing is that kids are naturally inclined to mindfulness, and the self-acceptance it calls for. We use a few techniques:
Breathing can be effective in reducing anxiety in the moment, and also in preventing it. It sends oxygen to the brain and a message to calm down and relax. When anxiety is taking hold (and my daughter’s breathing becomes shallow and restricted) we ask her to visualise a bottle of bubbles and to take in a deep breath, and then pretend she is blowing the bubble mixture through the wand. For older kids you may want to try the “rectangular” breathing technique, which is simply to breathe in for 4, out for 6, in for 4 and out for 6, while visualising the shape of a rectangle.
Our favourite app is Smiling Mind and it has helped my daughter remarkably. We often bookend the day with a “body scan”. This encourages her to be present and aware of how her body is feeling. The Resilience Project app also has some great guided meditations.
Positive affirmations are an effective way to manage anxiety and build a growth mindset. Your words, and the words they say to themselves, can have a big impact. Anxious kids need to feel safe, loved, secure and reassured. Our Little-Pick-Me-Up cards are an easy and effective way to strengthen your connection and help your daughter build confidence and self-belief.
Some anxiety, worry and fear is normal in childhood. But if you’re concerned that your child’s anxiety is interfering with daily life, talk with your GP. And remember, the goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety, but to help your child manage it so they can deal with life’s challenges from childhood, to adolescence and well into adulthood.
Do you have a child who experiences anxiety? Let me know in the comments section what techniques you have tried.