While most children are carefree and don’t think of the consequences of many of the things they do daily, there are those who can’t help but feel overwhelmed with worry and fear of what’s next.
Anxiety can strike at any age, and research shows that multiple factors come into play when a child starts experiencing anxiety. The genes, the physiology of the brain, the temperament, the environment, as well as some post-traumatic events – they can all affect the child to experience anxiety from an early age.
Anxiety is not a thing to turn a blind eye to and every parent with an anxious child knows that. Adults struggling with anxiety find it very difficult to face. A child feels completely disabled and destroyed by it.
This kind of worrying over the tiniest of things that look completely harmless, such as a ride to school in the bus, is debilitating for the child.
In fact, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that anxiety affects 40 million adults and 1 in 8 children in the United States alone.
The only person an anxious child can relate to and speak to about it openly is their parents (sometimes it can even be only one of the parents). So, how to help this child out? There is no single solution for every child.
In fact, the approaches vary from child to child, but there are some things you could try to help your child cope with anxious attacks and learn to control and eventually overcome anxiety.
Renee Jain, chief storyteller at GoZen, an anxiety relief program for kids, has some very useful advice on this. She proposes these 9 very effective coping skills parents with anxious children should try.
1.Stop reassuring your child
Many of your child’s worries are about things they shouldn’t worry about, and you know it. However, every reassuring falls on deaf ears when they start overthinking the problem that has popped in their head.
Why? As Jain explains, during an anxiety attack, the brain starts dumping chemicals and starts responding to the environment as if the person is in genuine danger, thus transitioning into survival mode.
In this state, the brain puts the logical part on hold and more automated emotions take over, in order to protect the person from the imminent danger. This response disables the child from thinking clearly and logically.
This is why rationalizing doesn’t help in such situations. No reassuring can help the struggling mind of the child to cope with the situation or understand that there’s no real danger.
What to do?
Jain proposes what she calls the FEEL method. FEEL stands for:
- Freeze – stop overthinking and start breathing deep with your child. Deep breathing can help your child reverse the nervous system response.
- Empathize – anxious attacks can be really scary for your child. Make sure that your child knows that you understand that.
- Evaluate – once your child calms down, start figuring out the possible solutions.
- Let Go – stop feeling guilty about their state, let go of it. You are an amazing parent and you can help your child out.
2. Teach them that worrying can be good
Anxiety is tough enough as it is, and you don’t want your child to start thinking that something’s wrong with them. Many children can develop anxiety about having anxiety. Your job is to teach them that worrying has a good purpose too.
If it weren’t for worry, we might have not come to this age as a species. It’s a protective mechanism that our ancestors used when hunting or gathering food. In a dangerous environment full of wild animals, people needed this mechanism to survive.
Although we don’t have to run away from predators, the protective evolutionary imprint has remained in our brains – worry. Teach your child that worrying is completely normal and everyone experiences it now and then.
However, sometimes worrying can come as a false alarm (as with anxiety), and there are some simple techniques that can put this kind of worry in check.
3. Bring your child’s worry to life
Ignoring anxiety won’t help much. Instead, you could teach your child to give worry a separate personality, which would mentally isolate it from your child’s overall thinking. You can do this together by creating a ‘worry character’.
Give the character a name and talk about it as if it’s a real person. At GoZen, children know of the Widdle the Worrier – a character who lives in the brain and is responsible for protecting them from danger.
As Jaine says, sometimes Widdle can get a little out of control, and this is when they have to talk some sense into him. She proposes that you could do this too with a stuffed animal.
The idea is very good, as it helps your child to demystify the disturbing response they get when they experience this kind of worry. It serves as a means to reactivate the logical part of the brain, and it’s something your child can use on their own at any time.
4. The thought detective
The brain functions in such way that in order to make sure we are paying attention to its message for danger, it can exaggerate the object of the worry. In these cases, a stick can look like a snake, or a person walking toward you can look like they are coming to get you.
The best method for calming the mind when the irrational effects of worrying occur is accurate thinking. Jaine proposes a method which she calls the 3Cs:
- Catch your thoughts: Teach your child to imagine their thoughts as floating bubbles above their head, like in a comic strip. Now, they need to catch one of those worry bubbles (like “No one at school likes me”).
- Collect evidence: Next, they need to collect enough evidence that will support or negate this thought. Explain your child that they shouldn’t make judgements based only on feelings. Feelings are not facts.
Find supporting evidence to the worry – e.g. “I had a hard time finding someone to sit with at lunch yesterday.” Now find negating evidence – e.g. “Sherry and I do homework together – she’s a friend of mine.”
- Challenge your thoughts: The best, and most entertaining, way to do this is to teach your child to start a debate with themselves. Discussing the ideas and evidence will eventually lead to a healthy conclusion about the worry.
5. Allow them to worry – create a worry time
Telling your child not to worry will not help them worry less. In fact, sometimes it can cause your child to feel even more worried. Instead, allow them to worry openly, in limited doses.
You can create a “Worry Time” daily ritual that would last for about 10 to 15 minutes. In this time, you allow your child to express and release all their worries in writing. Jaine proposes creating a nicely decorated ‘worry box’ together and putting all the worries your child had written in it.
During this worry time, every thought is allowed and there’s no rule on what makes a valid worry. When the time is up, close the box together and say goodbye to those worries.
6. ‘What is’, instead of ‘what if’
When we think of the future, we typically go with the ‘What if’ question about the things we are thinking of. Jumping forward in time can exacerbate the worry for those who suffer from anxiety.
Instead of thinking about ‘WHAT IF something bad happens when…’, the best way to reduce the worries is to get back to NOW and ‘What IS’, by practicing mindfulness. This helps your child to switch to the harmful ‘IF’ to the calmness of the present moment.
To do this, teach your child to simply focus on their breath for a few minutes.
7. A gradual approach to everything that causes anxiety
If your child wants to avoid social events, school, dogs, planes – basically any situation that makes them feel anxious – as a parent you will help them so. Of course, this is natural. Unfortunately, avoidance worsens anxiety in the long run.
Instead, approaching these ‘dangers’ gradually will help them cope with the irrational fears from them. Kids who able to manage their worry usually break it down into chunks they can manage more easily.
Using what Jaine calls ‘laddering’ is a great technique in helping your child reach the assumed threat ready. It works by chunking the steps to the goal, allowing for gradual exposure.
Jaine uses an example when a child is afraid of sitting on the swings in the park. Instead of avoiding the swings, you can create mini goals to get to final step, instead of rushing in, or avoiding it completely.
You could go to the edge of the park, then walk into the park, then go to the swings, and then finally, get on a swing. Walk through each step patiently, until exposure becomes too easy. That’s when you know it’s time to move on to the next step.
8. Make checklists for handling situations
When in danger, it’s hard for anyone to think clearly. In these cases, having some kind of guidance is not only helpful, but it can be essential. Pilots use checklists when facing an emergency even with their years of training.
When experiencing an anxiety attack, children feel the same way – unable to think of what to do next in order to handle the situation. This is why creating a step-by-step method can be very useful.
What should they do first when an anxiety attack happens? If breathing helps, then put it as the first step. Then, they could evaluate the situation, or talk to their imaginary ‘worry character’, or whatever works for them.
You can print out a hard copy checklist that your child can refer to when they feel worried or anxious.
Being aware that your child is suffering from all those worries at such a young age can be confusing, frustrating, and painful. As a parent, it’s just natural to ask yourself if you are the cause of their struggle.
The fact is that you can’t be the cause. As we mentioned earlier, anxiety can come as a result of a variety of conditions. It’s very important that you keep in mind that you didn’t cause your child’s anxiety – and you can help them overcome it.
Whenever you feel like taking the blame for their struggle, remember that you are not alone in this and taking the blame won’t help much, as it’s not yours to bear. Let go of the unhealthy self-criticism and love yourself.
You are your child’s champion, and the only one they can fully trust and relate to. Instead of developing your own anxiety, help them go through theirs more easily and lead them out of it.
SHARING IS CARING!