How to help your anxious child

How to help your anxious child

If your child is struggling with anxiety at the moment, you are not alone. Anxiety in children has been on the rise recently. Children have had to deal with a lot of changes recently such as homeschooling, spending a lot of time indoors, and not seeing friends and family. They may also have absorbed some of the collective global anxiety and panic during the pandemic. These factors are not ideal for healthy social and emotional development in children. Here are some things to look out for if you think your child might be suffering from anxiety and what you can do to help.

Signs that your child might have anxiety:

  • Separation anxiety and not wanting to go to school or being more “clingy”
  • Health anxiety and worrying about their own health, the health of others or excessively talking about the pandemic
  • Social worries and fears of spending time with other children
  • Regression of certain skills or developmental milestones such as talking, toileting, and academic performance
  • Poor eating, sleeping, and self-care skills

How can you help your child deal with anxiety:

  1. BUILD THE EMOTIONAL VOCABULARY: Children often feel scared of things that they don’t know or understand. Helping your child label their emotions will help foster a sense of control. It also helps children to process their feelings and build greater self-awareness. Teach them to use a rich vocabulary beyond just “happy, sad and scared”, for example, “excited, ecstatic, nervous, concerned, frustrated”. Talk to them about how the emotion feels in the body, for example, sweaty palms or a racing heart. It may be helpful to print out feelings or emoji chart and put it somewhere they will look at frequently and you can integrate emotions into daily discussions.
  2. NORMALISE WORRY After you have validated and labeled your child’s emotions, normalise their worries. Talk about times you have felt nervous or worried and how you dealt with it. Reading books that talk about emotions, drawing/painting, or acting out their feelings can be a good way to make their worries seem less scary.
    You can teach your child that anxiety is a normal reaction. It is like a “smoke alarm” for the body to keep us safe from danger. The only thing is that sometimes that smoke alarm is faulty and goes off when nothing is actually going to hurt us, so it’s up to us to switch it off.
  3. CALMER PARENTS = CALMER KIDS: Studies show that parent stress correlates with anxiety and behaviour problems in children. Children pick up on much more than we think so it’s important that you model healthy emotion coping behaviours to them. By managing your own stress and anxiety you send the message to your child that they are safe too. This will instill a sense of security and confidence they need to face the world and deal with their anxiety.
  4. TEACH RELAXATION: You can work with your child to learn relaxation skills. This is great bonding time which will also help to improve your own wellbeing. Find what works for your child to help them feel calm and regulated so that they can use these tools to bring them back into balance when they feel overwhelmed. Some children like drawing and art, playing with Lego or sensory toys,  getting outside, listening to a sleep story, guided meditation, doing kids yoga or breathing exercises. Your child will be much more likely to practice relaxation strategies if you do it with them.
  5. APPROACH NOT AVOID: When your child is anxious they will likely avoid and retreat from their fears, but this is the very thing that keeps anxiety going. When children avoid their fears they don’t learn that they have the skills to cope with them and that the anxiety in their mind makes things seem much worse than they actually are in reality. This can lead to “learned helplessness” where children believe they can’t cope or have the resilience to handle life’s challenges. Parents can encourage their kids to face their fears, starting slow and offering praise and rewards for small wins along the way.

Anxiety is a normal part of development as children grow and experience life’s challenges. The parent’s role is to provide scaffolding as children learn the skills to cope. If you feel like your child is experiencing significant levels of anxiety and maladjustment, they may benefit from working with a professional or child psychologist.