Most people feel anxious when they have to do something new for the first time, like starting a new job, for children it may be the first day at a new school. But sometimes, anxiety can be so great that it ultimately interferes with the activity at hand and leads to avoidance. Like your child may deeply experience anxiety that they'll refuse to go to school.
It can be highly stressful for a parent. Often parents ask what they can do at home to support their child with anxiety. I often tell them that the first thing they can do is recognise that their child's anxiety is a genuine response to fear. When parents misread anxiety as their child being difficult or angry, it can cause it to escalate. Then I talk about what is anxiety and what their child might be experiencing. Your child is not trying to worry. They are trying to cope with their body's need to deal with fear. Their body doesn't know the difference between facing a real threat versus the fear of being laughed at if they answer a question incorrectly in their classroom. Your child's body is responding the same way to these two very different scenarios.
When your child is anxious, you may notice their palms sweating. They may shift about, avoid eye contact, refuse to eat, are easily irritable, and be out of control during outbursts, feeling tense, or often using the toilet. In younger children, you may notice increased clinginess.
Here are 9 ways you can help your child work through their anxiety!
1. I am here with you. You are safe.
Asking your child if they need a hug or a moment alone when they're overwhelmed with anxiety can help make a difference. Every child has a different way of responding to stress and might feel differently every single time.
2. Do you want me to put on some nice music? We can shake it out?
Dancing is a great relaxation technique, that can quite literally shake the stress from your child's body and make them feel better. They get a clear head and change their perspective on how they view the situation causing them to worry.
3. Tell me about your worry.
One of the most important things you can do as a parent is to create a safe bridge of communication between you and your child, where they can open up to you and be freely allowed to express themselves. It helps them "talk" through what they may be feeling. Read more about how you can teach your child to regulate their emotions in our blog here.
4. Imagine your worry as a person. What would you like to say to this person? What do you think they might say back to you?
Role-playing gives your child the opportunity to practice how they can respond to situations that make them anxious. This can help them think clearly and almost compartmentalize the worry as being separate from their persons. It helps them prepare, anticipate and gives them tools to problem solve.
5. Why don't we think about what might happen. ( Think of some scenarios with your child! even the silly ones!)
Exploring some outcomes can put your child's mind at ease. It shows them that there is a range of possibilities with the outcome of whatever it is they are worried about. The common denominator being it is out of their control. Adults often struggle with this so always reinforce when your child puts in effort in dealing with their emotions appropriately.
6. Let's take some deep slow breaths in counts of 4
Where you can, do this simple breathing technique; in and out for four counts. Repeat 2 – 3 times with your child. Make a habit of practising this technique when your child is with you randomly throughout the day. When you spot them acting anxiously, practice this technique together. Practising this makes it more likely that they will use it when they are on their own experiencing an anxiety attack.
7. Is there something we can do to make you feel better?
Open communication and no judgment will build a beautiful connection with your child. One that will last you for years and years to come. As your child grows into an adult, keeping that bridge of communication with your child lined with mutual respect will go a long way. For your child, knowing that they can come to you and speak freely about their worries and anxieties is something that should never be taken for granted. Life is hard and we are not always going to get everything right. But having a parent you can confide in without any fear of judgment, is true support.
8. Let's do some drawing
Drawing can also be literal in giving you some clues about how your child might be feeling. Talking about items in the picture they have drawn can give you some context to their worries and fears. Sometimes putting them out on paper is another way to detach themselves from worry instead of internalising it.
9. What does this worry feel like in your body? Show me where you feel it in your body? Is it a big feeling or a small feeling?
Feelings are experienced consciously. Feelings form when your brain assigns meaning to the emotional experience that you are having. Teaching children how to be in tune with themselves is often essential to changing thoughts and behaviours! We put together a simple exercise that you can do with your child below. This is a great exercise to develop a sense of awareness in children.
An anxiety attack can happen at any time. Put in place a safe word with your child. They can use this safe word with you when they're struggling and need to remove themselves from an activity. Be specific with your praises when your child manages an anxiety attack. It lets them know that you've noticed their effort towards managing their attack and will help them feel good about themselves.
If you feel your child is experiencing high anxiety levels, it is always best to speak to a Paediatrician. Play therapy is highly beneficial in managing anxiety and stress in children.