How can we support a child with anxiety at home and school?
Every child has worries and as a parent, sometimes it is a challenge to comprehend how seemingly trivial matters can be a bigger concern to your child. Deciding how seriously to acknowledge some of these concerns is difficult and sometimes we get it wrong …
Small worries …
If you don’t take notice of the small worries when they are ‘small’, then your children will not share bigger concerns with you as they grow. I endeavour to take enough time to talk through worries with my children as they arise (generally at bedtime!) At some point, you may consider that everyday worries are becoming more of an issue for your child and could be evolving into anxiety …
The main symptoms of anxiety are described by the NHS: “… Anxiety becomes a problem for children when it starts to get in the way of their everyday life.” When young children feel anxious, they cannot always understand or express what they are feeling. You may notice that they:
- become irritable, tearful or clingy
- have difficulty sleeping
- wake in the night
- start wetting the bed
- have bad dreams
In older children, you may notice that they:
- lack the confidence to try new things or seem unable to face simple, everyday challenges
- find it hard to concentrate
- have problems with sleeping or eating
- are prone to angry outbursts
- have negative thoughts going round and round their head, or keep thinking that bad things are going to happen
- start avoiding everyday activities, such as seeing friends, going out in public or attending school
How can you help?
- Acknowledge – we always want to protect our children from negative feelings but in this instance, this could make things worse as taking away or ignoring the feelings will is not a successful strategy in the long term. Don’t suggest that there is nothing to worry about or trivialise the worry. Instead, take time to talk it through. The goal is that your child learns to manage their anxiety.
- Anxiety toolkit – mind map lots of different things that your child can try if they feel anxious. For example, use playdough or talk it through with a friend. Your child will then develop some preferred methods.
- Perspective – Learn to categorise these worries into their actual size i.e. a lost rubber could be a small issue but an earthquake would be a massive issue. This discussion around the scale of the problem will hopefully provide your child with more skills in generating an appropriate response.
- Probability – Some children have worries that are unlikely to actually happen and unfortunate events in the news or in their family can trigger an emotional response. Discuss with your child things that are likely to happen such as grazing your knee, in comparison to something highly unlikely such as your house flooding. For each worry, consider where it fits on the scale.
- Don’t avoid situations – even if they could cause anxiety and in fact, it may also be worth actively seeking out situations in order to support your child with something that makes them anxious. If your child is scared of dogs, for example, visit someone with the friendliest dog in the world. Remind them that being scared of something such as dogs is not always a bad thing, it is of course important to be wary of unknown dogs but if you get to the point of crossing the street to avoid one, then it’s affecting your everyday life and needs addressing.
- Reflect on lifestyle – are they getting enough sleep? Outdoor play? Downtime? Enough water? Too much screen time? Sometimes small changes can have a big impact on a child’s mood.
- Model how to handle anxiety positively – this can be a challenge, especially if you are experiencing some anxiety yourself. Think about methods that you use to calm down or feel better and share them. Consider if you are showing anxiety to your children and develop ways of reducing these such as, not having heated debates in front of them. Children are very perceptive and pick up on more than you realise.
- Respect feelings – when discussing anxiety, don’t say things like ‘You’re getting too old to be scared of that!’ Listen and support with positive strategies, ask open-ended questions instead of leading questions, especially if they involve words such as ‘anxious’ or ‘worried’.
When should we get help?
If your child’s anxiety is severe, persists and interferes with their everyday life, it’s a good idea to get some help. A visit to your GP is a good place to start. If your child’s anxiety is affecting their school life, it’s a good idea to talk to their school as well.