Unfortunately, dealing with anxiety isn’t simple. But there are ways to make life easier for an anxious child. The most important thing you can do is listen to them. Listen and ask them general questions about school, about their friends and hobbies in an open way, and they’ll feel able to talk to you about their fears and worries. Healthy strong relationships with parents and carers help create resilient kids, even if there are a few hiccups along the way. Let them know that you are there for them, that you’ll take them seriously and help them solve any problem they come up against – no matter how big or small. When they talk to you about their worries, it’s important not to belittle them, but also not to amplify those worries. Focus on solutions when there’s a problem to be solved, and involve your child in finding those solutions. However, sometimes your child might just want to talk about their feelings, so take your cues from them. If your child becomes panicked or anxious, remember this is their brain telling them that they might be in danger – they aren’t being difficult or manipulative.
To help them deal with an anxiety attack, you can:
• Come down to their level and take some deep breaths together
• Tell them you understand they’re feeling anxious about X
• Hold their hand if they want you to
• Wait until your child is feeling calm, then discuss solutions such as asking their worry questions to find facts
Once they are feeling back to normal, you can talk about what helped during the panic attack, and what didn’t, so you are even more prepared next time. If there’s a stressful event coming up – such as a house move – and your child is feeling anxious about it, talk openly with them about what will happen. Look for books or films that will help them understand their feelings. Try to have a daily routine and stick to it: kids feel most secure when they know what comes next. If your family is going through an upsetting time like a bereavement or divorce, avoid giving your child information they don’t need. Try to talk to them using language they’ll understand, and encourage them to talk about their feelings and to ask questions – but don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know all the answers. It can sometimes be easier for children to talk about upsetting subjects when they are occupied with something else, like drawing or colouring. They might even feel more comfortable writing you a letter. It’s natural for loving parents to want to shield their children from negative feelings, but avoiding things that make your child anxious only gives a short-term benefit, while in fact making the problem worse in the long run. The more a situation is avoided, the stronger the child’s negative memories and associations with that situation become. Instead of avoiding, gradually and gently give your child opportunities to form positive memories to associate with the situation. For example, if your child is afraid of the dark, take them camping and toast marshmallows around the campfire after sunset. If they’re nervous around water, take them rock pooling. Anxious about public speaking? Put on a play at home. There are tons of fun ways to gently guide your child towards feeling braver. If your child asks for reassurance often, try to get to the heart of why they’re asking. Talk about the worst-case scenario (and whether they’ll be OK if it happens), the best-case scenario, and what is most likely to happen. Encourage them to try new things, and let them know that it’s alright to have a go and not get something right first time. Finally, let go of guilt – it’s tempting to blame ourselves for our children’s struggles, or to try to make life as easy as we can for them. Give yourself a break. You’re doing a great job by giving your child the tools to grow into a resilient adult.
Poppy O’Neill is the author of Don't Worry, Be Happy: A Child’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety.