Anxiety in Children
It can be difficult to recognise anxiety in children. The signs can often be dismissed as typical childhood behaviour. Not wanting to do things, having tantrums for apparently no reason, running away when you try to put their shoes on…………….sound familiar?
Sometimes these things can indeed be typical behaviour of a child, testing boundaries and displaying their preferences in the most vociferous way.
Even so, it is worth bearing in mind that children can suffer from anxiety too though.
Chemical imbalances in the brain add weight to the theory that anxiety can be genetic. With this in mind it is important to recognise the signs of anxiety in children in order to help our little ones. There are some practical ways to help our children through their anxieties, which differ from the techniques an adult might use.
Create a Worry Box
A really fun way of encouraging kids to deal with their childhood anxieties involves allowing them to have them in the first place (in a controlled measure). As with adults, telling kids not to worry will do no good at all. It ill cause frustration because anxiety sufferers are simply unable not to worry.
Instead set aside 10 minutes or so to talk to your child about their worries. No worry is too big or too small, too silly or too strange. By vocalising their worries and seeing your positive reaction to them, your child will start to feel better.
To take this further you could create a worry box out of a shoe box, make it similar to a ballot box. Decorate the box with your child and then encourage them to write down the worries that you’ve spoken about. They can then post them in to the worry box, and that is where they will stay. Explain that the worries now live in the worry box rather than in their head and so they no longer have to think about them.
Anxiety sufferers will commonly choose flight instead of flight when faced with this common decision. Your child will be the same and will try all they can to avoid situations that they find stressful. The advice here differs to that of an adult anxiety sufferer. In adults it can be sensible to try and avoid triggers, whilst being aware that at times they are a necessary evil that must be endured. Children are not mentally developed enough to make such a measured decision and so leaving the choice to them will result in them choosing avoidance every time.
It’s natural that as a parent we will want to limit the distress suffered by our children. If we see our child crying and displaying fear about a particular activity our natural response is to remove them from the situation. Sometimes this can be the only way to handle things, don’t be hard on yourself if you have to sometimes take this approach.
The next step is to try and ease your child in gently to whatever situation it is that they are anxious about. If they are anxious about going to swimming lessons, maybe take them to the swimming baths, have a drink in the cafe, watch the pool through the window, then go home. Next time take them in to the pool yourself but don’t make them take part in the lesson, then repeat the cafe trip. Build up to them taking part in the lesson gradually. Once the current stage in the process becomes easier move on to the next until you get to where you want to be.
Adopt the FEEL Method
Simply reassuring your child will not ease their anxieties. It’s not that they don’t want to listen to reason,they physically can’t process the reassurance you are giving them. At times of high anxiety there is a dump of chemicals in to the brain. This can force the logical part of the brain to be put on hold. Everything is about survival rather than reason. This is true in adults and so the inability to reason is magnified in children. This is where the FEEL approach can be helpful:
- Freeze – Encourage your child to stop what they are doing. Ask them to look in to your eyes and trust you. Wait for them to stop crying and ask them to take a deep breath with you. Repeat this a couple of times.
- Empathise – As with all anxiety sufferers, your child wants to know that you understand. Expressively show that you understand how uncomfortable they are feeling.
- Evaluate – Once your child has calmed down a little, talk together. Come up with some ideas on how you can resolve the situation
- Let Go – This one is for you as the parent. Let go of your guilt. When your child is screaming in distress you will naturally feel guilty. It’s not your fault and instead of feeling guilty focus your energy on the first three points.
Remember that anxiety in children is a natural stage of development in many children. It doesn’t mean that your child will suffer with mental health issues as an adult. If anything it just means that you might need to give them a bit more love and attention. That’s the most rewarding part of being a parent, so embrace it.