Childhood anxiety: Helping your child understand anxiety
Childhood anxiety: from as young as a year old, we are exposed to anxiety. For a little toddler, this anxiety is usually in the form of separation anxiety every time mum or dad leaves. As children grow older, this anxiety may result in fears or phobias of storms, animals, or clowns. Throughout our lives, we experience at some point or another that anxious feeling or dread of foreboding.
As a parent, watching your child wrestle with anxiety can often leave you feeling helpless, frustrated, and disempowered. Our natural reaction is to rescue our child from these strong scary feelings or we want to shelter them from the “big bad world”. Deep down, we know that this is counter-productive because we need to be empowering our children with skills in handling their anxiety well.
Childhood anxiety: Anxiety vs stress
Anxiety is different to stress since it is more apprehensive and fear based thus causing you or your child to be on high alert. Your fight or flight response kicks into gear. Our brains race with what if questions as we begin to analyse every possible scenario known to humankind.
Anxiety may appear to be stress but stress is not apprehensive or fearful and we are usually able to identify the cause of our stress. Anxiety, on the other hand, can appear out of nowhere with apparently no trigger at times. One moment, your child may seem fine; the next, they are biting their nails, withdrawing into their little bubbles or eating less.
When the brain perceives a situation to be threatening, your brain triggers into fight-or-flight response flooding your body with norepinephrine and cortisol. These hormones increase your heart rate, reflexes, perception, etc. When the perceived threat disappears or is resolved the body returns to its former state and these hormones reduce.
Childhood anxiety: Signs that your child is anxious
A young child’s anxiety may start to be noticeable when they become more tearful, clingy or irritable. They may also experience difficulty sleeping thanks to bad dreams or bed wetting.
Older children may have difficulty concentrating, display increased angry outbursts, reduced confidence, lack of interest in new things, withdraw from school and society, or have a pool of negative thoughts whirling around in their minds.
Childhood anxiety: Teaching your child how to cope with anxiety
Although we are often tempted to rescue our children from their anxiety, one of the best things we can do for them is to support them while they face their anxiety. This means that we let them experience their anxiety, explore it and figure out healthy ways to deal with it.
1 Stop and breath. Help your child to breathe. Breathing is a natural way to get the body to calm down and return to a more relaxed state. It sends increased flow of oxygen to the brain thus reducing cortisol levels. Once your child is calm, you can begin talking through their anxiety.
2 Discuss their anxiety. Teach your child what anxiety is. Help your child understand that anxiety is their own internal superhero trying to protect them. The only problem is this little superhero doesn’t always get it right. Teach your child how their body responds to anxiety and what the fight or flight response is. Often understanding anxiety helps your child to feel less anxious about their anxiety.
3 Evaluate their thoughts. Use open-ended questions to help your child explore their thoughts. What are the thoughts running through their minds? What are the what ifs? It may be that your child is scared to participate in the new soccer group because what if the other kids think I can’t kick the ball. To your child, this what if is very real. Empathize with it.
The next step is to bring the truth back into perspective. Can they kick a ball? Help your child to remember their history of success in the area that they are experiencing anxiety over. Finally teach your child to challenge their thoughts. In light of the truth, is the what if true?
4 Stop avoiding the source of anxiety. In small bite-size chunks, help your child to face the source of their anxiety. Let’s suppose that your child gets anxious around balloons. The anxiety is that balloons will pop and hurt them. Your child will need to be exposed to balloons. So, at first, it may mean walking past a party shop with balloons. After some time, the next goal may be to go inside the party store of balloons or be in close proximity with a balloon. You progress the goals until the anxiety has been reduced.
5 Model healthy coping skills. As an adult, you are also prone to anxiety. Allow your children to see you coping with your own anxiety in a healthy way. This shows them that anxiety is considered a normal part of life. Children learn more from observation than instruction. Manage your own anxiety calmly and with tolerance. Let your children see the satisfaction that comes with overcoming your anxiety.
Childhood anxiety: Know when to get help
Sometimes, you can only help your child with their anxiety so far before you need to seek professional help. Take your child to a professional if their anxiety has become severe and is affecting their quality of life. It’s better to take your child for professional help than to leave them alone and unskilled in their anxious world. Plus, you’ll also learn other parenting skills to help yourself and your child navigate anxiety.
Goldstein, Clark, PhD. What to do (and not do) when children are anxious. Child Mind Institute. http://childmind.org/article/what-to-do-and-not-do-when-children-are-anxious/