INSIDE: Learn how to recognise anxiety in a child and how best to support them.
When our kids are suffering from anxiety, it can be very difficult to know how best to help them. All we want is for them to be happy and carefree. But many parents struggle about what to do with an anxious child and often find that their well-meaning comments only seem to make matters worse.
Think back to those times when you’ve been anxious or worried about something. Did someone telling you to ‘stop worrying’, that ‘you’re worrying over nothing’ or that ‘it’s all in your head’ ever help? I’m sure it didn’t. I bet it just raised your anxiety levels and left you feeling more isolated.
And if that’s how we feel as adults, with all our experience and logic to lean on, imagine how it must be for a child. Children need help to understand their feelings and develop the necessary skills to help them deal with their anxiety.
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But don’t lose hope. It can be frightening when your child suffers from anxiety, but there is plenty that we can do as parents to help them. Before we get into some practical examples of what we can do to support an anxious child, let’s first take a look at what anxiety is.
Table of Contents
- What is anxiety and what are the symptoms in children?
- Is it normal for children to feel anxious?
- What to do with an anxious child?
- Some final thoughts
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What is anxiety, and what are the symptoms in children?
Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness and unease, which can be brought about when we are worried or afraid of something. It can affect the way we think and feel and is often accompanied but a range of physical and psychological symptoms.
Physical symptoms of anxiety in children may include:
- shallow or fast breathing
- a dry mouth
- feeling shaky, hot and more sweaty than usual
- tense muscles although legs may feel wobbly
- a sudden urge to go to the toilet
- changes in appetite
- sleep problems – they may find it difficult to fall asleep, may wake in the night, have bad dreams or start wetting the bed
Psychological symptoms may include:
- mood changes, where they may become clingy, tearful, irritable or even angry
- negative thinking – they may struggle to see the positives in life
- a preoccupation with scary or upsetting thoughts
- nervousness or feeling panicky or frightened
- becoming overwhelmed and feeling like they can’t cope
- poor concentration as they may easily be distracted by their worries
- low self-confidence, often doubting their abilities to complete simple daily challenges.
- self – isolation as they may start avoiding friends, not wanting to go out in public or to school.
Is it normal for children to feel anxious?
It is perfectly natural for children to feel anxious at times, particularly before significant events like starting school or moving house. This is just a natural part of growing up. In most cases, their anxiety may be heightened for a while, but then will subside over time.
However, some children suffer from anxiety disorders. This is when they get stuck in their feelings of anxiety and become overwhelmed by them. If this kind of worry goes on for a long time, it can severely interfere with their lives by limiting the things they feel able to do. If this is the case with your child, then you must get them professional help from your doctor as soon as possible.
What to do with an anxious child?
So, what can we do to help an anxious child feel better? As parents, this is the burning question we all have when our child is suffering. We want to do all we can to fix the problem and fast. Luckily, there is plenty we can do to help.
Don’t be a helicopter parent
When our child is suffering, our first instinct can be to jump in and protect them. If they’re anxious, we may want to shield them from any situation that causes them to feel that way. This is only natural, but this type of helicopter parenting doesn’t help them in the long term. It may remove the immediate cause of their anxiety, but it does nothing to teach them any coping mechanisms.
It’s important to remember that learning to deal with stress is an important life skill. The more kids learn to cope with anxiety, the better at it they will become over time. But how do we help them to do this?
Try to leave your own emotions out of it
I realise that this is a big ask and much easier said than done. After all, it’s only natural to feel some strong emotions when your child is hurting. You might feel extremely upset and anxious too, or maybe you’re angry about the situation they’re in.
While that’s completely understandable, it’s important to remember that kids are like sponges. Your anxious child will have enough to deal with, without absorbing all of your emotions too. So, for the moment, do your best to leave your feelings at the door and focus on their needs instead.
In addition to the words you use, be aware of your tone of voice and body language. You may be saying the right things, but if you seem stressed, upset or angry, your child will pick up on it.
If you are aware that you are feeling very emotional, take a few minutes to calm your nerves and collect your thoughts before speaking to your child.
But it is essential to take care of your needs too. Dealing with an anxious child can be very stressful, so please do be sure to take some time to look after yourself. You may find some helpful suggestions in this post.
When your child has a problem, it can be tempting to dive in headfirst and start offering a long list of possible solutions. But the best thing you can do in most cases is to give your child your undivided attention and listen first.
Allow them the time and space to describe what they are going through and how they are feeling. Try not to ask leading questions or speak for them. Repeating back some of the main points they raised can help them feel valued and understood. Often, just having the opportunity to share their worries with you can go a long way towards reducing their level of anxiety.
Name that emotion and talk about what it feels like
Anxiety can be very frightening for children as they often don’t understand what they are experiencing, and believe they are alone in feeling the way they do. By giving it a name and calling it ‘anxiety’, you will make it less scary. They will then realise that it’s a ‘thing’ that everyone gets and that there is nothing wrong with them.
Talk to them about all the different symptoms associated with anxiety. Help them to realise that some are physical, while others are psychological, and ask if any seem familiar. It might reassure them to learn that their tummy ache may be a symptom of anxiety rather than a physical illness. Reassure them that any symptoms they are experiencing will pass and remind them that you are there to support them.
However, be vigilant. If you find that their anxiety doesn’t pass or that they are continuously becoming anxious, get some professional help for further guidance, support and treatment.
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Anxiety can be a very lonely experience. Although it’s not helpful to tell your child that you understand what they are going through if you don’t, you can say that you know what it’s like to feel worried. Tell them about times you have been anxious in the past, how that made you feel and what you did to cope with the situation.
Explain that anxiety is a normal part of life
So many children just don’t realise how common anxiety is. Help your child to understand that everyone gets anxious from time to time, no matter who they are, where they are from or how old they are; it’s a normal and natural emotion.
Don’t amplify or underplay their feelings
It’s important to acknowledge how your child is feeling without amplifying their anxiety. If you make it into a big issue and ask endless questions about it, it could only serve to make them feel worse, believing it to be a bigger problem than they initially thought.
It’s equally vital not to underplay your child’s concerns or make light of them. Adults often say things like, “It’s not that bad,” or “You’re just being silly.” Alternatively, they might try to distract the child or change the subject.
Rather than reducing their anxiety, this approach will only make your child internalise it. Just because a hurt isn’t discussed, doesn’t make it any less painful. They may feel like they can’t come to you with their worries because you don’t take them seriously.
Instead, accept that your child’s anxiety is there just as they described it and reassure them that together, you will work on a way to get through it.
Ask how you can help
As parents, we can feel that we should have all the answers. But often our kids know what they need from us to make them feel better. Maybe they want to talk about their worries, or perhaps they just want a hug or to be near us. Before you start trying to solve your child’s problems for them, simply ask them if there is anything you can do to make them feel better. Be sure to remind them that you are always there for them when they need you – that you are their safe place, and that they can always come to you.
Get a change of scene
Sometimes just going for a walk or a drive can help to reduce a child’s anxiety. Don’t force it but suggest going out for a while and see how they respond.
Keep their routine going
If your child is feeling anxious, avoid the temptation to break their routine. Now, more than ever, having a predictable routine with regular mealtimes and plenty of sleep is the best thing for them. It also helps to instil a sense of security as they know what to expect and when.
Remind them that nothing lasts forever or stays the same
When kids are caught in the grips of anxiety, it can be easy for them to think that they will feel like this forever. Ask them to think about the last time they were worried about something and to describe how they felt. Help them to recognise how their anxiety faded over time and reassure them that the same will happen this time.
Explain that they will feel better once some time has passed because anxiety is like a wave that builds up at first but then flows away. This description can help reassure a child that what they are feeling will pass.
Teach them how to take a few slow, deep breaths
An anxious child tends to take quick, shallow breaths. By slowing their breathing down, they will increase the supply of oxygen to their brain. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and creates a sense of calm.
When your child is feeling anxious, ask them to focus on breathing from their tummy, pushing it out as far as they can every time they breathe in. Ask them to take a few long slow breaths, counting to at least three each time they inhale or exhale. Although this may feel strange at first, it should help them feel more relaxed.
Doing this with your child can help them to get the hang of it, and it will help reduce your anxiety levels too, which are also likely to be raised by seeing your child upset.
By practising this regularly, you will be equipping your child with a valuable tool to help them manage stress and anxiety in their lives.
Develop an action plan
Sometimes it can help a child to have a plan of action, so they know what to do in a situation they are worried about.
So if your child is afraid of going to school because they think nobody will sit with them at lunch, help them to plan what to do if this happens. They could look around the cafeteria first to see if there is anyone they could sit with. If not, they ask someone if it’s ok to sit in a spare seat. Perhaps they could decide to sit and read or welcome others who are also looking for somewhere to sit.
Going into a stressful situation with a plan can help to reduce a child’s anxiety and more often than not, they find that things work out better than they thought they would.
Practise having a positive mindset
It can be easy for anxious kids to get into the habit of thinking negatively. But it’s important to help them develop a more positive outlook. Help them to reframe their mindset. So instead of worrying about having nobody to sit with, encourage them to see it as an opportunity to make new friends. If they are nervous about having a new teacher, suggest that they might end up being the best teacher they ever had. There is always a brighter way of looking at life. It just takes practice to see things that way.
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Celebrate the little wins and have positive expectations
The key to overcoming anxiety is having positive, realistic expectations and all the little wins along the way. If your child is facing a test, encourage them to be realistic in their expectations, to understand that they will be fine. They may not get 100%, but as long as they try hard, that’s all that matters.
Praise them for their efforts and celebrate their successes. Try not to dwell on the things that go wrong and instead try to focus on how they could improve things next time.
Encourage your child not to isolate themselves
Anxious kids tend to want to hide away and isolate themselves. This only makes matters worse. So instead, encourage your child to see their friends and talk about their problems with those closest to them. They’ll often be surprised and reassured to learn that their friends have the same worries and fears that they do.
Help your child to comfort themselves
Your child needs to learn how to comfort themselves when anxiety strikes. A key to this is to learn the art of positive self-talk. Explain how important it is to say kind, supportive things to yourself, in the same way that it’s important to be nice to other people.
Together, work out some positive phrases your child could say to themselves when they feel anxious, which could make them feel better. Perhaps “I can do this!” or “I feel anxious now, but I know it will pass because it has before,” would work for them. Encourage them to use these to help them get through moments of anxiety. This will help them to build up a lasting coping mechanism.
Some final thoughts…
I hope you have found these ideas on how to help an anxious child useful. Is there anything I haven’t thought of? I’d love to know what you have tried and what has worked for you. Please leave your comments below.
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Till next time,