Anxiety is a normal reaction to something that is viewed as threatening. The fight or flight response is the body’s reaction to a perceived danger. Childhood fears are usually short-lived. However, some children continue to experience debilitating anxiety, which can have a crippling effect on their self-esteem and need help. Children may suffer from separation anxiety, specific fears like fear of the dark, or, as children get older, they may experience performance-based anxiety around schoolwork, tests or sport or/and social anxiety. Help is needed if your child’s anxiety is ongoing and is affecting his emotional wellbeing. ‘Worries are like weeds – the more you water them the more they grow’
A. How you can help your child
• You can help your child by first seeking help for your own anxiety levels if you too suffer from anxiety. Anxious children need to know that you, their health and safety provider, feel confident that their environment is safe.
• When your child says he is worried or behaves anxiously, first validate his feelings. Listen to him and offer comfort. Acknowledge his fears and let him know that together you will overcome these fears. Sore tummies and headaches are genuine responses to anxiety, but do NOT keep your child home from school. And whatever you do, don’t tell your child that if they feel unwell during the day, you will come to fetch them! Anxious children can, and often do, become very manipulative.
• Routines help the anxious child to feel safer. Get your child to school on time so that he doesn’t begin his day feeling flustered. Avoid overscheduling your child’s day and try to set a calm example.
• Make sure you provide a healthy diet and limit TV viewing which often aggravates anxiety.
B. Teach and practise relaxation skills so that your child can learn to control and calm his body when necessary.
• Deep breathing is the first tool to teach. Make sure the shoulders are relaxed then breathe in through the nose to the count of four. Hold breath to the count of four while quietly saying to oneself, “I am okay.” Breathe out through the mouth to the count of four while imagining all the stress and tension draining away. Deep breathing calms the body.
• Add a distraction tool. After 3 deep breathing cycles, ask your child to name 3 things he can hear, 3 things he can see, and 3 things he can touch. If he feels a little dizzy after the deep breathing, let him cup his hands over his mouth and take several breaths in and out.
• Progressive relaxation helps a child to become aware of the difference between tense and relaxed muscles. This involves breathing slowly as described above while gradually focusing on relaxing a different part of the body, starting at the feet and moving on up to the legs, the tummy, back, shoulders, arms, hands, neck and head. This is a good bedtime exercise to help get your child relaxed and ready for sleep
• Regular exercise is a great way to improve self-confidence and to reduce anxiety.
• The “And then what” technique can also be useful. For example, if your child says he is worried you won’t fetch him on time, you respond by asking “And then what?” Each time you child replies with a further worry, you respond with “And then what?” This helps a child to think through the fear and often to realise that it is unfounded or not so serious.
An excellent workbook for children who stress too much is “What to do when you worry too much” by Dawn Huebner. There are also many story books dealing with anxiety. Some of my favourites are “The huge bag of worries” by Virginia Ironside and “The worry glasses” by Donalisa Helsley.
However, if your child’s anxiety escalates or continues to impact negatively upon his wellbeing, seek professional help.
Sheelagh Bargate – School Counsellor